This is a guest post by New Orleans native and writer L. Kasimu Harris. Follow him @visionsandverbs on Twitter and Instagram.
During the next two weeks, 400,000 people will weave through second-line crews, muffuletta stands, and chanting Mardi Gras Indians at the Fair Grounds Race Course for the 45th annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. That’s more than 1,000 times the number of people that attended the first year, when the count came in at 350.
When Jazz Fest debuted in what is now known as Congo Square at Louis Armstrong Park in 1970, the mission was to showcase Louisiana’s rich cultural heritage through music, food, and art. Artists such as Mahalia Jackson, Duke Ellington, Pete Fountain, and Fats Domino were among the fest’s first performers, and they helped shape what has become one of the largest music festivals in the South. By 1972, the event outgrew Louis Armstrong Park and moved into the 145-acre Fair Grounds Race Course, where it is still held today.
I grew up about three blocks from there and haven’t missed a year since I was 10. I don’t need to look at the “You are here” festival maps anymore. I bring plenty of cash for food, and prepare for bathroom lines that are too long for continuous drinking. In honor of the 45th anniversary, I—along with some seasoned festivalgoers—give you three reasons why Jazz Fest is the best festival in the South.
1. The Food
Vance Vaucresson attended the first Jazz Fest as a baby, while his father sold po’boys. Today, his Vaucresson’s Sausage Company is the longest tenured vendor at the fest. “If you took away the food, it’s just another destination festival with hot dogs and chili,” Vance says. “Here, you’re getting gourmet food on a horse track.” He adds that what keeps Jazz Fest unique is that it continues to show off the city’s diverse roots—from the Native American and French influence to the Spanish, African, and Caribbean.
“The food and music at Jazz Fest go hand-in-hand,” says Sarah Baird, a food writer for Gambit Weekly. Sarah’s insider tip: This year, Brazilian food will be added to the lineup. Look for the pão de queijo (brazilian cheese bread) from vegetarian stalwart Carmo, as well as jama-jama (sautéed spinach) and poulet fricassee (sauteed kebob-style chicken) from Bennachin.
2. The Music
“The last act on the last day in the Jazz Tent is always amazing,” actor and NOLA native Wendell Pierce says. The Neville Brothers closed out Jazz Fest for years, but Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews has this year’s honor.
“Every year, I have to spend some time grooving at the Cajun stage listening to traditional music, as it is usually less crowded and reminds me of why I love being from Louisiana,” says designer Billy Reid, a local native now based in Florence, Alabama. “And I spend as much time eating, as I do listening to music. Boudin balls and shrimp tacos are my two favorites, but I also love the meat pies and crawfish bread. Bring cash and just go from one booth to another.”
3. The People
“I’ve been to hundreds of other festivals, but nowhere will you find friendlier, dancier, more good-times-lovingier people than at Jazz Fest,” says David Freedman, general manager of WWOZ 90.7 FM. “Among the multitudinous outcroppings of baby-strollers and wheel chairs is a sea of fools awash in exuberance, strong spirits, high spirits, and spring fever. The music made me do it!”
For Kristin Diable, what makes Jazz Fest special is people’s connection to the music. Kristin, a singer/songwriter who’s performing on the Lagniappe Stage Saturday, April 26, says festivalgoers range in age from babies to senior citizens that have attended for more than 20 years. “It’s like a religious pilgrimage; they travel here every year,” she says. “They connect with the culture and respect it here more than in any other place.”
Are you attending Jazz Fest this year? Tell us what you are most looking forward to. For us it’s this…