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Laissez Les Bon Temps Rouler

Shameless selfie with Kermit Ruffins, circa 2018
Dave Jackson
Shameless selfie with Kermit Ruffins, circa 2018

It’s April 2020. Writing this is like writing a letter to be mailed across the country in the 19th century. I sincerely hope it finds you in good health.

A new tradition among a group of my friends was to be taking place late April and early May. Every even numbered year, we go to the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. It’s a new tradition because it only began for us, in 2016 with me and my wife, Kirsten. It continued with several others in 2018 and is now postponed due to COVID-19. If this is the worst thing our group experiences in this crisis, I will be glad to chalk it up to a first world problem.

Jazz Fest, for me is part music geek immersion therapy and part middle-aged guy still trying to hang on to youthful energy and stamina. Being from the west coast and going to the central time zone is a key to the latter. In the interest of a brighter future, here is what would have been my 2020 jazz fest guidebook. Maybe we can use it next year.

There are 3 parts to the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. One is New Orleans. If you have not been, the food itself is worth at least a long weekend sometime. For a first timer, go to Mother’s Café. Suspend all voluntary diet restrictions. Get their Bloody Mary. Check out Bourbon Street at night, just once, for the spectacle then find more authentic New Orleans elsewhere. It really is a cool town with an interesting history and beautiful architecture. In various trips to the area we have done a riverboat cruise, a swamp tour and a tour of the Whitney Plantation. Be sure to have coffee and beignets at Café Du Monde. Have some oysters and crawfish.

Jazz Fest, for me is part music geek immersion therapy and part middle-aged guy still trying to hang on to youthful energy and stamina.

Then, there is the music, the other 2 parts. First, the “official” festival runs during the day at the fairgrounds. There are dozens of stages with a wide spectrum of musical acts from traditional New Orleans brass bands, Cajun, Zydeco and blues acts, to huge national and international acts of all kinds playing simultaneously. This is a blessing and a curse. When you pick one act, you are foregoing at least 2 other good ones. If you’ve been waiting all your life to see Paul Simon, there is no way to catch part of Snoop Dogg playing across the venue because of the 60,000 people and 200 other super cool things you will encounter along the way. Because of the crowds, we don’t go the festival each day. We pick a day or 2 based on an act we want to see. In the couple of times we’ve gone, I have seen Paul Simon, Geno Delafose and French Rockin’ Boogie, The Radiators, John Cleary, Tedeschi Trucks Band, Sonny Landreth, Arlo Guthrie, Neil Young, Beck, Tank and the Bangas, and Trombone Shorty just to name a few. This year Dead and Company and Lizzo were the big Saturday acts. There are Mardi Gras parades that run through the venue and all kinds of fantastic food booths and art. It’s fun and exhausting.

My favorite music stuff (part 2) happens at night in the clubs around town with great local acts and interesting collaborations in sometimes very intimate venues. I saw Walter Wolfman Washington at a club called DBA with about 30 people and Seth Walker in a tiny club. There is a webpage dedicated to these shows, jazzfestgrids.com. Check it out. Like days at the main venue, if you pick one show, you will be missing several others. It’s almost stressful (first world problems again) making decisions. The shows are not announced together, so while you wait to see if something else comes along, the show you were thinking about sells out. I start looking at the grids in January, obsessively. We had tickets this year already to see Turkuaz, a Brooklyn based funk band joined by Jerry Harrison and Adrian Belew (of the Talking Heads), perform the Talking Heads album Remain in Light and Foundation of Funk with George Porter Jr and Zigabo Modeliste of the original Meters joined by Jon Scofield among others. In the past, I have seen the Dan Auerbach project, The Arcs, a recurring jazz fest only super group called the M&Ms with John Medeski, Stanton Moore and Papa Mali. In 2016 I saw them in a show that began at 2am joined by saxophonist Skerik. In 2018, we saw Galactic and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band together. We capped off the weekend at Kermit Ruffins’ Treme Mother In Law Lounge where he served crawfish and brisket while a house band with various guest horns and Kermit himself jammed. I even got a geeky selfie with him. It’s funny how he doesn’t talk about that as much as I do. I left jazz fest both times exhausted and suffering from a financial hangover but fully refreshed and invigorated about music.

When deciding whether to see Neil Young or Bonnie Raitt because you can’t see them at the same time becomes stressful again, we will know we have reached the other side of our current crisis. Jazz Fest is my jams. I hope whatever your personal “jazz fest” may be, it is back on schedule soon and we can all triumphantly say “laissez les bon temps rouler”.

Dave Jackson curates the music on JPR's Rhythm and News Service, manages music staff and hosts Open Air, JPR's hand-picked house blend of music, JPR Live Sessions and Open Air Amplified. The exploration of music has been one of his lifelong passions.