When Hurricane Katrina called on southeast Louisiana on August 29, 2005, it didn’t knock first. The wolf-wild winds simply huffed and puffed and destroyed more than 350,000 homes. Almost 2000 people lost their lives in the actual hurricane and in the subsequent floods. New Orleans didn’t escape. Unlike the immovable house of bricks in the fairy tale, the city’s metropolitan area was battered then lost under fifteen feet of water, resulting in over 200,000 homes and apartments being damaged beyond repair.
In the years following, New Orleans has undergone a remarkable makeover. Streets and buildings have been cleaned and refurbished, hotels reopened, parks replanted and businesses reestablished. The Garden District is again blooming and families enjoy the exhibits in the Aquarium of the Americas and Audubon Zoo. On the fences surrounding Jackson Square, paintings have reappeared and the fortune tellers have been allowed back after taking a hit for not predicting the disaster. ‘It was impossible to strike a happy medium,’ a local artist told me, ‘so instead we told the unhappy ones to stay away. The rest are good for business.’ Hotels like the Maison Dupuy on the corner of Toulouse and Burgundy Streets continue to offer guests French Quarter luxury at affordable prices while the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau maintains the city’s enviable reputation for providing advice and generous assistance. Riverwalk, on the shores of the Mississippi, is justifiably popular with both tourists and locals. The shops and food hall are conveniently located within one building and value for money is assured. Guaranteed also are the unforgettable images that simply appear in, and around, the central courtyard. On a bench, a pipe-puffing woman sits with her back to Paul G. Allen’s 301-foot yacht ‘Tatoosh’. It’s difficult to determine which of the two is the more mesmerising. Today, the city largely mirrors its former glory and its attraction is again strong. However, the real attraction of New Orleans is not in its constructs or culture, even though they are formidable. For me, the quality and spirit of a home, town, city or country are not measured by the architecture, art, music, food or fabled reputation. They are measured by those who create these elements – the people. The lifeblood of a place is in those who animate it and in New Orleans, the blood group is universal and joyfully obvious - be positive.
If there is a single element that epitomises the animated spirit of New Orleans it has to be its music, and while Bourbon Street is the artery through which the beat and pulse constantly flow, Jazz Fest becomes the city’s heart once a year. For two weekends in April and May, the Fair Grounds Race Course literally throbs to the sounds of as many styles of music as there are smiles from the thousands of visitors who fill the various tents and stage areas. From 10 in the morning till 6 at night, people flow from one sound to the next as horns wail, hands wave and fans whistle. Every sound is featured; rhythm and blues, gospel, Cajun, zydeco, Afro-Caribbean, folk, Latin, rock, rap, country, bluegrass and of course jazz. Outside, every mound of grass is crammed with joyful music lovers, each one swept up and away by the cadence and colours, and while choice of venue is exercised, the impulse to dance is not a conscious decision. Like a fit of the giggles, it becomes irresistible and spreads quickly. Singles, couples, groups; men, women and children. The happy infection is universal. There is no self-consciousness or hesitation. The mood mellows and the mass moves. Uninhibited undulations under the Louisiana sun. It’s a sensational sight and an unforgettable experience.
Most people visit more than one performer and the areas are generally small enough to allow close viewing. Even the gospel tent, although able to hold a couple of thousand, is surprisingly intimate. This is because the performances, like the sounds, are enveloping. The joy of the Lord is on every face and in every note. And it’s not the ethereal choirs heard in staid cathedrals. These witnesses for Jehovah jump and shimmy and fill the tent with a spirit of unity that even atheists would find uplifting. ‘I wish someone would give me a hand,’ the host shouts as he waves his prosthesis above his head. And the audience does. That’s the delight of Jazz Fest; tons of talent and instant response.
The biggest arena draws the largest crowds because the stage belongs to the headliners. In recent years, many stars have appeared, among them Wynton Marsalis, Joe Cocker, the Kings of Leon, Earth, Wind & Fire, Pete Fountain, Tony Bennett, Bonnie Raitt, Bon Jovi and James Taylor. The festival is one of the few events where major acts appear within close proximity to each other and at almost the same time. If your taste is eclectic, you can wander. If it’s specific, just sit and appreciate. But whatever your inclination, when the beat begins to drive, you’d better hope that your airbag works.
While the ‘stars’ undoubtedly shine, the twinkle belongs to the fans. Clothes are loose and rainbow-bright, hats broad, feathered and flouncy and sunglasses mirrors in which the whole excitement of the festival is clearly visible. Strangers become instant friends, linked by a love of music, and conversations follow naturally. In the time it takes for a set to be completed, you might have clapped with a rapper, rapped with a happy-clapper, laughed with a cop, sung a duet with a girl in a cap or even danced the conga with an Elvis look-unlike. Jazz Fest is essentially a shared experience, and the more you give the greater your gain.
Sight and sound are not the only senses to be seduced. Taste is also tantalized. Scattered around the enclosure are lines of booths and stalls that offer an array of delicious local food. Even the names have a musical quality; Cajun Jambalaya, Muffuletta, Shrimp Etouffée, Catfish Almondine, Sweet Potato Pone, Andouille Gumbo, Snow Crab Sushi Roll, Praline Shoe Soles, Huckabuck Frozen Cups, Jazzy Cupcakes. The list of treats is as long as the queues of eaters but the sense of anticipation that builds during the five-minute wait for your crawfish is worth much more than the small sum handed to the vendor.
Between the two weekends, the festival continues in the bars and clubs of the French Quarter, with Bourbon Street being the euphoric epicentre. Bands and singers appear nightly, and for the cost of a drink, you can enjoy hours of fabulous music. Walking to the clubs can be just as rousing because on every corner, crowds collect to marvel at the brass groups, guitarists and lithe black kids flash-tapping under street lights. Even with the bustle and noise, there is no sense of apprehension or threat to safety. It’s simply a ton of fun in a town of friendship. About ten miles out of town is a venue unique to the city – the Rock ‘n’ Bowl. Here, pins tumble as piano keys tinkle and those not bowling are either dancing, drinking, talking or tapping as live music echoes around the hall and along the lanes. Visitors come from the local area, interstate and overseas. The affable American sculptor Jimmy Descant, sharp as a tailor’s scissors in black and white, is a regular and the band he watches will be seen by thousands at Jazz Fest the next day. That’s the performers’ pattern; a bar, club or restaurant during the week, the festival stages on the weekend.
During the day, groups also perform in outdoor cafes, making a coffee and beignet at the Café du Monde an even more pleasurable experience. Along N. Peters Street, which leads to the 200-year-old French Market, most restaurants showcase trios or quartets during lunch and dinner. The music is relaxed, the food inexpensive and the atmosphere informal. Or you can just walk around streets like Toulouse, St Louis and Royal, listening to the buskers who belt out numbers freely.
Pete Fountain once said, ‘If I had grown up in any place but New Orleans, I don't think my career would have taken off. I wouldn't have heard the music that was around this town. There was so much going on when I was a kid.’ For the thousands of people who experience Jazz Fest each year, it’s still going on.