The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival is looking fat and happy. Yep, as it turns 45, it’s definitely getting that middle-age spread.
But is it aging well? As usual, Jazz Fest fans are wondering if the event is getting too big? Too expensive? Too crowded? Does it even have enough jazz?
And, most importantly, is it for us or for them?
After four decades of festing, I’ve found that the us and the them aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. We talked to some out-of-town festers this year and, come to find out, they aren’t so different from us.
For one thing, most of us agree that, statistics aside, Jazz Fest feels more crowded these days. An Australian I met said that this year’s first Friday crowd felt like his last visit’s second Saturday crowd. Only a Jazz Fest veteran understands what that means.
London visitor Katie Duncan commented on the crowds, too. She noticed that the scene changes from day to day: "It seems like a lot of the same people go every year. Like it’s a real thing. Never going before and experiencing it and knowing how much it has changed is quite interesting. It feels like it has become more touristy. Going on Friday compared to going today — the crowd felt quite different. I would love to come back and see how it changes again in five years, 10 years."
She probably will. Jazz Fest has always formed a community of its own. And it has little to do with geography. Sham Ecclesiastes has been coming with his family to Jazz Fest since he was a baby. He and his brothers sell jewelry in the Louisiana Marketplace.
"If you’re not here you should be here," he said. "It’s a great hug it gives you. The city is beautiful. We’re from Brooklyn, New York. We enjoy the atmosphere, the people, the good food, the good music. It’s a sort of freedom and appreciation that other festivals don’t give you. I embrace the people. I never saw a fight at Jazz Fest."
Neither have I — though I’ve witnessed weddings, second-lines, speaking in tongues and one instance of scattering a departed fan’s ashes over the grounds.
Over the years, I’ve met many of the Jazz Fest fans who aren’t from New Orleans, and they all seem to have one thing in common: They wish that they were.
"I feel like I want to move here," said Katie from London. "I want to live here. Leaving is going to be really hard."
For all I know, she’s still here.
Peggy, an annual Jazz Fest visitor from South Florida, can’t relocate, but has done the next best thing.
"We stay for the two weekends," she explained. "We bought a timeshare just for this. At the Wyndham. So that we can come every year and stay at the Wyndham for 12 days. During the week we rent a car and just travel around to see what else there is to do."
And that, really, is what Jazz Fest — like New Orleans itself — does best. It offers people a place for self-discovery. For new experiences. It focuses on what we arguably do better here than anywhere else in the country: We live in the moment.
Not that Jazz Fest can’t keep pace with the times. I took a selfie at the Samsung tent this year and won a free crawfish bread. Who knew, way back when, that Jazz Fest would someday offer VIP seating, chilled white wine and names like Springsteen and Clapton?
In some ways, things have gotten more corporate — the outer fence this year was lined with exclamatory yellow signs that read “No outdoor vendors allowed.” In typical New Orleans fashion, it didn’t put a dent in the usual pop-up entrepreneurs selling cold beer and handmade jewelry.
But in the most important ways, Jazz Fest hasn't changed much at all. There are familiar sights, like the lines at the poster tent, or the glass-blowing demonstrations in the craft area. There are familiar tastes, like Crawfish Monica or cochon de lait. There are familiar sounds, like the notes of a brass band or a Mardi Gras Indian chant.
Ultimately, for many of us, Jazz Fest is a great mix of the familiar and the new. Sometimes both. Watching a tattooed, graying Phish fan this year brought back an instant déjà vu of a horde of younger post-hippie fans when the band first hit Jazz Fest in 1996 — to the horror of all the old-timers.
I have to admit that I like the fact that Jazz Fest is coming of age. Who wouldn’t want the Super Bowl of music events to take place in their own back yard?
Forty years of doing anything is a long time," Sham said. "It has developed. There’s more diversity, more avenues to express yourself. Every year we grow, starting to build a fan base, meeting people who love the city. It loves you back."
Yep, feeling the love. That’s one thing that hasn’t changed at all. For us or for them.