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Jazz Fest: Worth the 26-year wait

In 1978, my parents came to New Orleans to visit my uncle, who was then a student at Tulane University School of Medicine. He had heard about some “cool music thing” at the Fair Grounds and sent my parents to investigate. They took his car and parked right by the entrance to The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. Though they were from California and had not yet caught wind of the burgeoning Jazz Fest, when they entered the grounds, they were hooked.

The Bester Singers & the Dynamic Smooth Family Gospel Singers of Slidell at the Gospel Tent

Enraptured by the soul of the music, the food, the art, and a reason to visit New Orleans annually, they returned to Jazz Fest over the following years, recruiting their close-knit group of friends and family to accompany them. Every time they came, they stayed in different parts of the city and experienced Jazz Fest as well as the culture of New Orleans. From restaurants, art galleries, and antique shops to post-Jazz Fest nights spent watching Professor Longhair at Tipitina’s, Jazz Fest became a time for their community to become a part of the New Orleans community.

They continued coming to New Orleans and to Jazz Fest over the next few decades. As a child, I was not allowed to accompany my parents on their Jazz Fest adventures, but my sister and I were enchanted by stories about the famous New Orleans and its Jazz & Heritage Festival. We dreamed of one day attending ourselves.

Then, over a decade ago, my sister started dating a New Orleans native. She jumped at the opportunity to come to Jazz Fest and celebrate New Orleans culture with her boyfriend (now husband) and his family and friends. I continued to pine away from my native California and longed to experience Jazz Fest.

After moving to New Orleans last year, I vowed that after waiting 26 years, this would be my year to finally experience Jazz Fest. Lured by Johnny Sketch and the Dirty Notes, the Beach Boys (I am from California, after all), Bon Iver, Gomez, James Andrews & the Crescent City Allstars, Mardi Gras Indians, and a wealth of other musical acts, I went with my boyfriend to “First Friday,” and from the second I walked onto the Fair Grounds, I was in heaven. Jazz Fest is sensational, blending art, food, culture, and of course, MUSIC!

Throughout the day, food guided us around the festival. We ate alligator pie, crawfish monica, a cochon de lait po-boy, and other delectable New Orleans dishes.

We walked around the contemporary crafts area, enjoying conversations with local artists from the community. We even bought a J. Stirling Barrett print that will forever hang in our house and remind us of the spirit of New Orleans.

We moved from stage to stage, enjoying local artists and big-name bands, who all seemed to recognize that by playing at Jazz Fest, they were participating in some greater musical force. Justin Vernon from Bon Iver even said he had been coming to Jazz Fest with his mom and sister since he was 14 and that it is the best festival he plays.

For years, my dad had been telling me, “When you go, you have to go to the Gospel Tent,” and go I did. The power in that tent reflects the palpable energy and cultural vibrancy of New Orleans. The Gospel Tent, along with John Stamos playing drums with The Beach Boys, were certainly the highlights of my day.

Though some take issue with the high prices and tendency to emphasize big-name, national artists over local artists, for me, Jazz Fest brings New Orleans locals and outsiders together to engage with the authentic cultural spectrum, community, and energy of New Orleans in one location. After 26 years of waiting, I am hooked on Jazz Fest in the same way my parents were more than 30 years ago and look forward to attending with my local and non-local communities for decades to come.

Brianna Smyk has an M.A. in Art History. She lives and works in New Orleans and writes about arts and culture for NolaVie. Read more of Brianna’s articles at


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