#LocalLife: A Tale of Two Jazz Fests

The weather is starting to get liquid hot at noon. Already we see the sun’s rays as electrifying not just warming. It’s that time of year again. No, not Mardi Gras: Jazz Fest.

It may seem like a time-old tradition now, but local festival-goers have seen it evolve for over four decades. Many people say it’s dead, dying, or has completely sold its soul. However, for the lovers of Jazz Fest, that simply isn’t so...


Jazz Fest musician, Brice Miller

Brice Miller, Ph.D, Scholar, Lecturer, International Jazz Musician

“Jazzfest has been an annual event my entire life. My dad, Dwight Miller, a saxophonist, has been performing at the festival since 1971. He was featured on the festival's 1978 poster. I have been attending since around 1978, according to my mother.”

I began performing at the festival with my dad's band, Pinstripe Brass Band when I was in the 8th or 9th grade. I began performing as a bandleader in 1991, while attending St. Augustine High School, leading my own band, Junior Pinstripe Brass Band, now Mahogany Brass Band; we have performed every year since! I also perform with other bands, including Pinstripe Brass Band, Treme Brass Band and Delfeayo Marsalis and the Uptown Jazz Orchestra.

What’s the best concert you’ve seen there?

“This is tough because I've seen so many concerts. However, one that stands out was Al Jarreau. He was in the Congo Square Stage. In the middle of his performance, he stops the band, and goes on this extreme rant about race and racism, and how mean spirited White people are. The entire audience was in shock, gasping. I was like, ‘Oh shit.’ That performance changed my life as a performer. It showed me I have to use my voice on stage, and that platform to not only entertain, but to educate. That has become a hallmark of my performance.”

How do you incorporate that into your performance now?

“[When I play at Jazz Fest] it's my day to be both a spokesperson for the city and my culture, and also my day to be a celebrity. Media from around the world often interview me, some visit my house for more personal insight, and I've had some to follow me around the days leading up to the festival. Being able to utilize my talent to compete with the larger big name festival performers is empowering. Secondly, it's a family day. My entire family comes out, my parents, and all the band members families; it's a family day for us and we bring the kids on stage during the performance. It's funny because festival goers have commented that they've watched my youngest two kids grow up on the stage. My son's first appearance at Jazz Fest was when he was 1 years old, and he's been on stage every year since then! Now he's actually performing with the band, along with his younger sister.”

What are your essentials to bring?

“Firstly, dress comfortably! It's hot in New Orleans and there is absolutely no covering, no trees, no shade at the festival. Wear a big hat, loose fitting clothes, comfortable shoes, and bring lots of water. I had some friends from Birmingham come and I told one of the girlfriends to dress comfortably, [but] she passed out in the middle of my performance from heat exhaustion.”

Favorite area?

“My favorite area is the Norman Dixon, Sr. (my uncle) Jazz & Heritage Stage, which is the stage I perform on. Here, you'll find New Orleans brass bands and Mardi Gras Indians performing all day, which is that truly authentic cultural performance. After that stage, I'd say the Lagniappe Stage, which often has more experimental music, plus it's the coolest (temperature-wise) place at the festival and the only outdoor space with shade. Economy Hall is pretty cool too, lots of traditional jazz, lots of older people dancing, which is so cute.”

What is your after-Jazz Fest routine?

“After Jazz Fest, we have a tradition of heading to our house with friends, family, and even strangers and we eat crawfish, Barbeque and just relax while having a good time. Our house, which is in the historic Carrollton community has always been a party/gathering space. My wife and I have been hosting our pre/post Jazz Fest gathering since 2000. Actually, my band and their families come to the house the morning of our Jazz Fest performance; we eat and drink then head to the festival together.”

Where do you see Jazz Fest headed as a music festival?

“I personally feel it's becoming too commercial. People come to New Orleans for New Orleans music. I understand the big name acts draw people, but engaging the local artist with the big names would help build the profile for local musicians. Also, I don't feel any act should be allowed to perform with only a DJ. Last year, Mystical performed and used a live band; that performance was absolutely amazing!”


Jazz Fest original, Steve Hartnett, with his conquest map.

Jazz Fest original, Steve Hartnett, with his conquest map.

Steve Hartnett, social go-getter, old art seller/teacher, modified hippie

SItting down with Steve was like talking to the Buddha of Jazz Fest fans. Starting at the very first Jazz Fest at the Fairgrounds (1972) he was asked by the editor of the Figaro (an alternative newspaper in the 70s and 80s) to sell art from his gallery at the event in “huge red and white tents that looked like the circus.”

“I would invite all my friends and buy them the kid’s ticket for $3. No one at the gate looked at the tickets back then they just tore them and you walked through. As soon as they visited me I would say, ‘Hey, come here! Would you mind sitting here for a second so I can go see a band.’”

When I asked him how often he goes to Jazz Fest or what his plan of attack is Steve scoffs at the question. “I go every day, baby!” He starts his day with beignets, coffee and a prayer in the Gospel tent. Then, he looks at the line-up sheet which he has marked up to look almost like a football notebook. His best advice? If you don’t know who is playing go to Spotify, [Google, and Youtube, etc.] and listen to some of the bands you don’t know. “I want to go see someone called JohnnySwim. Well, it’s more than one guy.”

When pressed about what it was like in the early days of the festival the stories never stopped. Steve and his wife, Pam, would park their van in the infield and basically tailgate. Since they are vegetarians (living in New Orleans, geez) and didn’t drink they  packed sandwiches and bring a new backpack called a Camelbak for water.

It seems that Steve is doesn’t fuss over much, but he cringed when I asked if he stayed at one stage. “Do not be a camper. It defeats the camaraderie.” (Jazz Fest supposedly has a very, very low arrest record. Most likely due to the jovial spirit shared by all?) When Professor Longhair said ‘Gonna make it my standin’ place’ in his song “Mardi Gras in New Orleans” he spoke Steve’s language; “God gave us the ability to stand in 2 square feet.”

Where to go afterwards? “Jazz Fest used to continue on The President”, a 1924-vintage cruise boat who saw all the great names. Seriously, they had the best. Now Steve and his wife go home to rest up for the next day.

Well, where should I go if I want to stay out? Everyone wants to know where to see a big name or secret show.

Know that the bands in Jazz Fest can’t play together outside the Fairgrounds that weekend so the beautiful culmination is a mix-match of talented artists going to see their record labels, local musicians of interests, and friends. The best plan is to pick a local band you want to see and watch the magic of Jazz Fest unfurl. If you’re a little too rigid for that order a ticket to Preservation Hall’s Midnight Preserves. It lasts all seven nights and features a headliner with the band every night. You never know who it will be, but again, you are guaranteed magic.

Eating Through Memphis

Memphis is deceitful. Maybe that is their plan, to remain quiet and inconspicuous so they can keep the city just the way they want it. Living in New Orleans can leave you unknowing of the other festivals and events relatively close cities produce. On a Saturday that was filled with the first crawfish boils of the season I boarded on GLO airlines to head to Memphis. Thankfully it was not raining as I made my way down the airport boardwalk, onto the twin propellor plane, and into my cozy, single window seat. In less than two hours I was going to be in a city very much like the one I love. A city where music, food, and booze is only second to the people who create the feel of its culture.

Now, you can go to Memphis just for beers at Wiseacre Brewery or to taste the original works of the New Orleans Ace Hotel’s newest chefs at Hog and Hominy or Porcellino’s. You can venture around to Overton Square or Cooper Young areas to see some action. However, in order to soak up the most of Memphis here are a couple of festivals that will solidify your love.

Gus' Fried Chicken with Bass Pro Shop in background while on the river.

Memphis in May

This is the big one with a marathon/5K, a BBQ contest, an International Week, and of course, the Beale Street Music Festival. It takes over much of the city in the same way Jazz Fest does with New Orleans, but the more the merrier in this instance.

Whether or not you are running the race downtown choose to complete the morning with lunch at Gus’ Fried Chicken. It will be packed so order a full meal with a drink, walk the couple of blocks to the river you just ran by, and have a picnic. It’s a beautiful scenery if you can manage the lightening-white glare from the Bass Pro Shop glass pyramid. I cannot talk about this chicken enough because it’s too killer to put into words. It’s as if hot sauce was baked (fried) into the tender chicken itself and the only way you can get to the meat is to crack the deep brown crust of skin. I messed up and didn’t even order a drink, but the chicken was so tender and moist it wasn’t a problem.

Overton Square Crawfish Festival

Question, why would you go to Memphis to eat crawfish? Answer, because trying new boils and judging the ever-living-hell out of them is what we do best. While you’re in the area stop by Lafayette Music Room: think of a cleaner version of Maison with a live music bar at night and family friendly brunch spot by day.  Overton Square is a nice place to walk around, bump into friends from last night, and soak up some sun while playing corn hole. It gets better when you add crawfish.

A few festivals spread throughout the year are:

The Bacon and Bourbon festival. Think lots of people from Kentucky, but every restaurant does something special for it.

The Southern Hotwing Festival is the bomb and self-explanatory.  Go there. Eat. Be happily disgusted with yourself.

The Lucero Family Picnic is totally bizarre (it centers around an eccentric band from Memphis) and will feature St. Paul and the Broken Bones (of Birmingham, AL) this year.

901fest is new and a part of Memphis in May, but is a paid event that mimics the “locally sourced” feel of French Quarter Fest. This is on my list, but not at the top.

In between all of the music and revelry you may get hungry or thirsty in Memphis but don’t worry, it’s not Cleaveland. They have a set-up that truly inspires gluttony.

There is breakfast and then there are doughnuts. Gibson’s is basically the place you want to be 1) because of the melt-in-your-mouth doughnuts of all varieties, and 2) for Don DeWeese the proprietor, orator, and community magician. You cannot enter the shop even once without a hello from Don, a few suggestions about Memphis, and getting to know him personally. He is the personification of Memphis; personable, demonstrative, and insightful.

At Gibson's Doughtuts with Don DeWeese, February 2016.

In between doughnuts and music you can meander into almost any bar and learn the name of the bartender. Some of the best bars to get acquainted with, and fast, are: Earnstine’s and Hazels, Bar Dog, and Wild Bills. Writers note: Wild Bills will treat you like college with 40s of domestic beer and a red solo cup. It’s a perfect late night stop before you go home.

This is more than enough reasons to go to Memphis, but if you need just a little more nudging visit here. It will provide a full list of every big and obscure festival happening. So, don’t wait. Pack up the car or hop a heavily discounted plane ride and have fun one weekend. Get out and explore!

riginally written for Where Y'at.