The stages were about 15 feet wide, and built sort of like boxed-in, deep bleachers on which the musicians sat in three tiers. I guess the amplification, such as it was, and other equipment was on the ground off to the side. I remember four stages on the sides of the square, and we were standing about seven or eight feet from the first row of musicians on one of them when my husband nudged me and leaned over to ask, “Isn’t that Woody Allen?”
It was. Playing the clarinet. And when they had almost finished the set, he put his instrument in its case, shook hands with each of the other musicians, hopped down from the stage and quietly and quickly departed. He had made an unscheduled, unheralded appearance. Just jammin’ at the first Jazz Fest.
Twenty or so years later, when famous acts were being booked for the fest, we had a close encounter with a celebrity of the homegrown kind. “Hey, Wynton,” our daughter yelled from the crowd around the back entrance to the stage where Marsalis was to play his trumpet, and he beckoned her forward through his entourage for a tiny class reunion. We had last heard him play — in person — at their graduation ceremony at Ben Franklin High School.
By that time, of course, Jazz Fest had moved to the racetrack, having played in Congo Square for only two years. It was heavily attended, but by today’s standards the crowds were still sparse enough to permit you to meet friends easily, and we usually did that under one of the big trees near the small Fais Do Do stage. I remember that I could sit on the ground there and actually get up without assistance!
By the end of the day, the crowds would have swelled to the point that you were swimming through people on your way around one of the small lagoons to the big stage to the east. And the air would be heavy with the scent of pot, something I haven’t smelled in many years at the fest. (Just not in the right place?)
I remember the years of torrential rains: people losing their shoes in the shin-deep mud, watching a friend trying to make her way to “our tree” pushing a baby stroller that kept getting mired in the gunk, laughing at the kids who were belly-flopping into it and then sliding as far as they could.
Always a Jazz Fest gourmet, I love the strawberry lemonade, softshell crabs, cochon du lait, Natchitoches meat pies and the crawfish in the little rice paper bags. I’ve also loved to peruse the arts and crafts booth; a colorful, primitive rendering of Jazz Fest by Bruce Brice hangs in a prominent place on our kitchen wall. I’ve bought many Jazz Fest tee-shirts and own a Hawaiian-type shirt patterned with alligators and fastened with little ‘gator teeth as buttons. Most of my friends have red beans shirts.
I’ve never been one to linger long at the music stages: 30 minutes of this and that has been enough for me. I think I spent an hour listening to Doug Kershaw one year, but for the most part, I’m a Jazz Fest wanderer: a little of Irma Thomas, then over for another crawfish pie, over to the portalet, then on my way to see whether the man who sells the beautiful tie-dyed scarves is there again. One year during all this wandering I discovered a talented 11- or 12-year-old piano player who captured me for a long time then and for several subsequent years. His name is Harry Connick Jr.
I like to catch the annual performance by the New Leviathan Oriental Foxtrot Orchestra. The singer and banjo player is my good friend, artist George Schmidt. I like to watch another friend, Reece Burka, dance to their music.
Last year five friends and cousins from L.A., Chicago and Dallas were our houseguests at Jazz Fest time. We parked not far across Esplanade from the fest and discovered it was still too far for one of them, who badly needed knee surgery. He made it through the gate but mostly stayed in the gospel and blues tents while we were there.
This year, I was the one who couldn’t keep up the pace with California relatives. The day was comparatively cool and comfortably breezy. But I tired early during my wanderings, and my Achilles tendon began hurting way before I got back past Esplanade to our car. What a difference a year has made in my energy level, I thought, and remembered a call from my health provider. They’re offering workout sessions at a nearby gym; “Silver Sneakers,” it’s called.
I think I’ll check it out before next Jazz Fest.
Bettye Anding is a former editor of the Living section of The Times Picayune, for which she wrote “Silver Threads” until her retirement. Email comments to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.