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Jazz Fest revisited: Observations from a former devotee

Luther Kent had them dancing in the aisles during his set in the blues tent on Friday, April 29th at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. (Photos by: Scott Saltzman)

I skipped my college graduation to attend Jazz Fest. The decision was a no-brainer. Garry Trudeau, the creator of Doonesbury was our commencement speaker. I liked his strip well enough, but I liked Dr. John, Van Morrison and the Neville Brothers even more. Besides, they weren’t serving crawfish beignets and cochon de lait po’boys in North Carolina.

It rained that year – which, as far as I was concerned, made it even better. My friend Zack and I played football in the mud, while listening to Snooks Eaglin, Earl King and the Radiators.

Like a number of New Orleanians, my enthusiasm for Jazz Fest waned over the years. “It’s too crowded and too expensive,” I complained.* “I don’t recognize many of the bands, and the lines, especially those for the dreaded, though indispensable port-o-lets, are discouragingly long.” I started to sound like one of those old timers who sits on his stoop all day railing against the modern era, with its hipsters, wine bars and air-conditioning!

A friend recently asked, “So, ya go down to Mexico for Mardi Gras, I never see ya at a second line parade, and you don’t do Jazz Fest. So, tell me again, why do ya live here?”

“The potholes, humidity and termites of course,” I replied. “No, I actually love the fact that we have those things, I’m just not into them like I used to be.”

She gave me a pass to the Fest and told me I should give it another shot. “Who knows,” she said, “you might just become a born-again devotee…”

 

Flipping Through Photos

My friend, Scott Saltzman has a booth at Jazz Fest. He sells black and white photographs of musicians and bands. He’s been working the Fest for more than 25 years. He’s got quite a collection!

Scott organizes his photographs in books and bins. When people visit the booth, they immediately start flipping through photos. They aren’t necessarily looking for a particular artist; instead, they’re hoping to stumble across a memory or two. When they do, you hear things like:

“Yeah, Dr. John and Allen Toussaint’s tribute to James Booker in 97 was &%$! unbelievable!”

“Betty Carter in the Jazz Tent in 98 was ridiculous. That woman had pipes!”

“Simon looked a bit haggard and Garfunkel’s voice was shot, but their reunion was still a trip!”

“Did you see Springsteen the year after Katrina? That’s when I knew the city was coming back!”

“Trombone Shorty and Orleans Avenue in the Jazz Tent that year was my recovery set!”

“Were you here the year of the deluge? The Acura stage was a &%$# lake!”

“BB King and Allen Toussaint together in the Blues Tent in 2013 - now that was truly a magical moment!”

“Did you see Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett in 15? Talk about The Odd Couple?”

“Dylan is always hit or miss, Aaron’s voice is angelic, and I really miss Pete Fountain…”

Jazz Fest is like one big family photo album. It’s a place where people come to reminisce.

Dancers were not bothered by the mud and cool temperature that blanketed the fairgrounds during Yvette Landry’s set an unusually cool and windy day at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, 4 May 2017 (Photos by: Scott Saltzman)

When I went back this year, the unmistakable scent of fermenting hay, dry manure and impending rain, the taste of Jama Jama with fried plantains, Prejean's Pheasant, Quail and Andouille Gumbo, and a mango freeze, the wail of Sonny Landreth’s slide guitar, the feel of Roman Candy yanking out a filling, and the sight of that shimmering city of blue port-o-lets all took me back to the weekend of my skipped graduation.

People who come to Jazz Fest have one foot in the past and the other in the moment (and mud). While parading down the track with Mardi Gras Indians, convening with friends over muffulettas and crawfish bread, or suffocating in the Dave Matthews mosh pit, they’re either reliving old memories or making new ones…

 

Leafcutter Ants

My friend Zack is now an entomologist. He was telling me the other day how urban planners and Silicon Valley engineers are studying social insects like bees, ants and termites.

“They’re trying to figure out how to make cities function better,” he said. “Insects crawl all over each other, but they somehow manage to get along and get stuff done. It’s pretty incredible when ya think about it!”

“It is,” I said. “Kinda like Jazz Fest!”

The Fairgrounds during the seven-day festival is transformed into a massive mound of leafcutter ants. Instead of leaves though, the swarming people carry paper plates loaded with jambalaya, Crawfish Monica, and etouffee, colorful sacks containing portable chairs, beer cans in koozies, backpacks, walking sticks and baby strollers. Scurrying about in Cajun white shrimp boots and flip flops, baseball caps and sun hats, they’re all on a mission: to catch Anders Osborne at the Gentilly Stage, to meet up with friends from Toledo and Pass Christian, to grab a bag of pork cracklins and a frozen café au lait, to dance to Nathan and the Zydeco Cha-Chas, to pick up a present for a friend in Cleveland, to watch an artist from Havana paint a mural, or, of course, to find the nearest port-o-let.**

It appears chaotic, but it’s all very purposeful – like a colony of social insects. They somehow all get along, and get stuff done. It’s pretty incredible when you think about it!

 

Dancing in the Mud

I moved back to New Orleans in 1992. The first weekend of Jazz Fest that year, my friend Zack and I passed by the Fais Do-Do stage. There, we saw two guys dancing in the mud. They were unbelievable. They looked like the Cajun version of Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire. And their partners, moving “backwards in high heels,” were just as good.

One of them turned out to be Scott, the photographer. Two years later, I moved into a shotgun double on Peniston Street. Scott happened to live on the other side. (Yes, New Orleans is a very small town!) We became fast friends; though, I’m sad to report, he never taught me how to dance the Cajun Two-Step.

The other was Keith Hurtt. I met him through Scott at a neighborhood bar. He’s a lawyer, a bicycle tour guide, a raconteur, a member of the Forty Funny Fellows, and an unrivaled New Orleans character.

I’ve never been to a function in the city, at least one that involved music, food and dancing, where Keith wasn’t there. Needless to say, he was at Jazz Fest this year – dancing in the mud!

Keith is the poster child for New Orleans. He embodies its energy, its spirit, its soul. He bleeds fleur-de-lis!

At the Fairgrounds during Jazz Fest, everybody has a little Keith Hurtt pulsing through their veins. I met folks from Santiago, Chile; Frankfurt, Germany; and Sydney, Australia; San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles, Ponchatoula and Harahan, who were ALL New Orleanians for the day.

One of them was from Indiana. She confessed, rather mournfully, “I’ve only been to Jazz Fest three times.” Then, she added, “If it were up to me, I’d be here every year! I can’t get enough!”

She, along with 425,000 others!

Yeah, Jazz Fest still rocks! One day I might just skip my retirement party to attend…

 

* Yogi Berra said it best, “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”

** My latest “invention” (My wife calls them “crazy ideas.”) was conceived at Jazz Fest. The Pee-Row™ Catheter Koozie is designed for festival goers who 1) don’t want to give up their prime spot at the Acura Stage, 2) like to drink lots and lots of beer, and 3) would rather shave with a cheese grater than wait in line for a port-o-let. It’s comfortable, stylish and, if you don’t plan to use it for its intended purpose, can keep your favorite adult beverage cold (or warm). It will be on sale at the Louisiana Marketplace in 2018…

 

Folwell is an educator, artists and born-again Jazz Fester. He still aspires to dance the Cajun Two-Step. He can be reached at fldunbar@icloud.com

Folwell Dunbar is a New Orleans educator, artist and survivor of many things, from roaches to German U-boats and heartbreak. He is putting together a collection of these short stories and survival tales called He Falls Well (his name is pronounced “fall well”). NolaVie is honored to preview some of those stories here. Email him at fldunbar@me.com.