by readers and staffers of the New Orleans Times-Picayune, with contributions from readers of The Gumbo Pages ... edited and annotated by moi.
The shortest bathroom lines are on the second floor of the Grandstand. It's worth the walk -- they're clean, and you can wash your hands.
Otherwise, use the Port-o-Lets right inside the gate, even if you don't think you need to. They're among the few with no lines. (This is especially important if you're with kids.)
Wear sneakers or comfortable, lightweight walking boots with socks, not sandals, and don't go barefoot, unless you love the feeling of powder-fine racetrack dirt or stinky used horseplop hay between your toes. Sandals may look great, but they offer no protection. Good thick cotton socks will 1) cushion your feet for strolling and dancing and 2) absorb sweat.
The Fest's Best-Dressed
DEFINITELY leave high heels and nylon stockings at home.
Wear as little as possible, 'cause it's hot out there! If it rains, all you need is a baseball cap and a light windbreaker or poncho. Or rain gear can be a basic as a 40-gallon trash bag. Cheap, disposable, stylish (sort of).
Take any kind of hat and sunglasses -- if you've got 'em, wear 'em.
T-shirts and shorts are the official Jazzfest uniform. But the nicer the weather, the more fest-goers look as though they're at the beach.
Rule No. 1: NEVER wear THIS year's Jazzfest T-shirt! Very uncool.
Get there early -- 10:30 or 11:00am. That way you have access to all the food booths, which will be very, very crowded the rest of the day. For breakfast, have the strawberry, banana and coconut salad from the Bennachin's African restaurant booth (near the jazz tent).
Eating and Drinking
If you're planning to last through the day, drink the giant iced tea (rosemint, mandarin orange, or regular) or strawberry lemonade all day long, NOT beer. Beer is wonderfully refreshing on a hot day, but beware the combination of alcohol and heat.
If you eschew the preceding tip, take along an insulated plastic bag (since you can't take in an ice chest), then buy six beers and put them in it. Now, head for the front of the stage and you have cold beer for the afternoon and won't have to keep waiting in line.
To avoid food lines, try eating at off-peak hours (lines go down between 2 and 4pm, and between 6pm and closing time). Plan for a lunch break at 3pm instead of midday. OR, go for more mysterious fare such as jama jama or cochon de lait instead of the more popular soft-shell crab po-boys and crawfish bread.
Stick to small servings; you won't get over-full and you'll enjoy the day a lot more.
Eat at least one Creole's Stuffed Bread every single day you're on the Fairgrounds.
If you see someone eating something interesting, go ahead and ask what it is. If they're from New Orleans, you might learn a thing or two. If they're from out of town, they'll probably unintentionally say something very funny. If they're from the Irish Channel, they'll probably ask you if you want a bite.
First, clip the schedule out of the Times-Picayune. Buy a souvenir program if you like (it has some discount coupons for some of the food), but the paper's schedule is the cheapest and the easiest to carry around. Next-best things are the free copies of OffBeat magazine that are usually handed out outside the Fairgrounds entrance. Full schedules, and lots of great articles.
If there's someone special you want to see, get to the tent or stage early. Otherwise, just keep strolling and you'll always come up with something interesting.
Spend at least a few minutes every day at a spot near the middle of the infield, where you can hear snippets of music from many stages at once, for a mind-blowing melange of sound.
Spend some time at the Heritage Stage. This is where some of the most intimate, least-populated shows take place, and it's one of the few areas you can find a real seat to cool off and/or eat. And they often have live interviews with interesting artists. In 1999 I got to hear Zachary Richard deliver a fascinating talk, plus he sang two songs a cappella that he rarely does live.
The best shows are not always by the biggest-name acts. Everyone knows that the gospel tent is one revelation after another, but the Economy Hall tent is where some of the best surprises have been found. Let me repeat ... big-name acts are, as a general rule, to be avoided. I have no idea what possesses some people to go see Hootie and the Blowfish at Jazzfest while they're missing something fabulous in Economy Hall. Bands like these are NOT why we go to Jazzfest, people!
Dare to be trendy. Sure, everyone in Greater New Orleans may be heading to see wonderful mainstays such as Irma Thomas or the Neville Brothers, but hunt out the new acts that you've heard friends talk about, even if more people are on stage than in the audience. Who knows? Years from now, you might be able to say that you were a fan way back when.
Don't hog lots of space at a stage for a major act, saying you're saving the area for folks who are nowhere in sight. It'll only make you wildly unpopular. Those 100-square-foot blankets whose borders are defended as if they were national territory are particularly odious. Be considerate. We're all here to have a good time.
Take your children to Jazzfest at least one day; leave them at home at least one day.
Taking the Kids
Check out the Kids' Tent.
Don't just take your kids -- go with other parents and their kids. Cut up the responsibility and meet up often. Feed them like they're growing. Three couples, six kids. One parent baby-sits an hour. Pick the hour the night before so there are no surprises.
Don't wear a wristwatch. If you must know the time, ask a neighbor. It's a great way to meet the folk.
Other Stuff That's Good to Know
Leave your car in Marconi Meadows in City Park; party on the shuttle bus. Or ride a bike. If you must drive, there's parking available in local church or school parking lots for $8 or $10, which probably goes to a good cause.
If you can't carry it in your pockets, leave it at home.
The traditional place to arrange a meet-up with someone is at the flagpole, but rarely does the rendezvous actually occur -- folks are too busy dancing and partying. I've had successful rendezvous in front of the record tent and in front of our fave food booth -- Creole's stuffed bread!
Totems can help your friends find you in the crowd. Be smart. Not too tall, not too wide, don't swing them wildly or one day they're not going to allow them in any more.
Take plenty of sunblock, SPF 15 at least, preferably higher. Replenish as necessary. Your skin will thank you.
Leave your wallet in your (locked) car. Though the atmosphere is festive, everyone seems happy and police provide a reassuring presence, light fingers are at work. Instead, tuck bills in a pocket or fanny pack, along with ID and credit cards for major purchases such as crafts or posters.
Relax, stay cool and don't get uptight. Enjoy the weather, the music and the people. If you don't like crowds, stay on the outskirts. The sound is usually pretty good even way at the opposite end of the big stages.
Go to the fest in a small group -- any more than three people is unmanageable. Stick to your schedule; see the acts you want to see. Don't be afraid to go directly into the crowd. Concentrate on the music; do not go to socialize. (One reader advocates a two-minute rule on socializing: "If I go with 3 or 4 people, we allow anyone in the group to stop and talk to a friend, but not for more than two minutes. You also need to have a strong leader who carries the schedule and imposes the two-minute rule.")
Don't try to do everything all at once. Because of the heat, the crowds and the sheer overwhelming variety of food, music and crafts, Jazzfest is like a marathon: Overdoing too early will only wear you out. Pacing is everything. Take your time. Enjoy.
If you see a small crowd looking at something, check it out. You never know what it might be: famous musicians jamming with unknowns, vocalists singing with folks from other groups. That's how one reader came upon a wonderful moment two years ago -- a wedding in the Gospel Tent.
BE A VOLUNTEER. You'll have to do some hard work, but you get T-shirts with official Jazzfest logos, a look at the behind-the-scenes action at the Fair Grounds and a preview of the crafts booths and talks with the artisans before the crowds arrive. If you work in production, you will meet some of the artists. Those are very popular jobs and they go first. You need to be quick and flexible to get the best positions. People who've volunteered longer and have a positive track record get dibs. The best volunteers eventually may get full-time Jazzfest jobs.
For Next Year
And if you work fest days, of course, you don't have to pay admission. Most shifts are about four hours long on fest days, allowing fest workers to see shows, too. This year there were 6,000 hours that needed to be filled by volunteer workers -- from secretaries to carpenters to cooks to craftspeople helpers to kids' tent volunteers, to data entry clerks to folks to put up crafts tents on fair days. This is great for people who are part-time workers, college students with flexible day schedules or people who work evenings and like being around the artists and musicians who run the fest. Lots of the work is outdoors, which is also refreshing for an office worker.
Veteran volunteer Jenny Moore agrees: "The best way to have fun at Jazzfest is to be an insider -- and the way to be an insider is to volunteer. There are almost 500 volunteers at this year's Jazzfest. It's like you're the host of the party, you're part of the family. There's no better way to enjoy the Jazzfest than to be on the inside."
For more information, contact The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation.
new orleans page | chuck's jazzfest page
the official n.o. jazz & heritage fest page
the gumbo pages | search this site
Chuck Taggart (e-mail chuck)