Thursday, May 5, 2011

A Beautiful Day For a Crackhead

On My High, Thoroughbred Horse

Today is a beautiful day to go to Jazz Fest! Temperature in the low 70’s, nice breeze, low humidity and not a cloud in the sky! But I won’t be there. I doubt I’ll ever be there again. You see, I fell out of love with Jazz Fest some years ago. I was there with some friends trying to enjoy ourselves. It rained, but that didn’t bother anyone; rain is just one of those things you expect sooner or later. In fact the rain provided some entertainment. It was a hoot watching all the tourists slip down in the mud. But I took a look around me - we were high up on the track at the fairgrounds near the Acura tent, listening to some well known band. We couldn’t get any closer because of the throngs of hip-to-hip hippies (or wannabe hippies), most of whom stunk and were now covered in dirt. We couldn’t see the band, but we could see them on the big TV screens. They played with as much enthusiasm as they would at their own mothers’ funeral. I could hear the music clearly; it could be described as mediocre at best. We were near the port-a-potties and a beer tent. It smelled like Bourbon Street after a particularly debauched night. Even the [very expensive] food we had consumed had been so-so at best. Another tourist fell in the mud in front of me. I laughed and pointed out the poor soul, who also was laughing. I realized then that the muddy falls were the only thing that had made me smile in hours at Jazz Fest, perhaps all day. I didn’t spent all that money and effort to come to the thing to watch tourists slip in mud, yet that was the most entertaining thing I found at the festival. It was then that I realized I had fallen out of love with Jazz Fest.

I guess a big part of my disdain these days is hypocrisy, or at least false marketing. Back in the old days, twenty or thirty years ago, rarely would you see a singer or musician from outside the realm of the Deep South. Many were up-and-coming artists, hoping for a chance at fame, but happy that crowds were listening to them play and sing. Accidentally strolling by one of their stages and being captivated by their previously unknown music was one of the most appealing aspects of Jazz Fest. A couple of times while working the medical tent, Galactic, from Baton Rouge, would play their funky jazz at the stage behind us, and later I’d go buy their music. At EMS headquarters located right next to the Fairgrounds, we could hear Jermaine Bazzle, Fats Domino, Dr. John and the Nevilles. And in those days, there’d be maybe one nationally known pop singer or band on one stage on the last Sunday of Jazz Fest, without any particular ties to Louisiana or Jazz, like Paul Simon, but no one really minded.

That, it turned out, was the downfall of Jazz Fest, in my humble opinion. Now, the music schedule is peppered with nationally and internationally known singers and music with absolutely zero connections to Louisiana or jazz or anything to do with our heritage, for which, ironically (or hypocritically) the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival is named. Oh, you can still see and hear the local bands and rich musical heritage for which New Orleans and Louisiana is famous. But those artists (and I use the word “artists” sincerely) take a back seat to the crowd-pleasers and big-draw names. Look at this year’s schedule. Kid Rock? John Mellencamp? Tom Jones? The Strokes? Lauryn Hill? What do any of them have to do with jazz, New Orleans or Louisiana heritage? And don’t get me wrong - I like each and every one of them and their music. What irks me is that when you hear people saying why they’re going to JazzFest, it’s because they want to see these performers, not our home-grown artists. JazzFest itself is culpable too, booking more and more of these types of acts as headliners while our fantastic local artists take a backseat, functioning as mere opening acts for the bigger names.

It’s to the point now that even the local news find it remarkable that local artists are playing at Jazz Fest. WDSU news plastered this headline: “Jazz Fest Thursday Opening Has Local Flair.” Local flair? We need to be reminded that the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival has local flair? Gone are the days when the “local flair” was the Jazz Fest. The news article specifies that the festival is presented by Shell. This does not mean that Shell Oil felt the need to subsidize Jazz Fest to make the entrance fee free or reduced, out of appreciation for our oil-dependent local economy or out of a sense of responsibility of "giving something back;" it merely means that their ads are plastered over everything, like a pimp tattooing his own name on all the prostitutes he manages. It feels as if I had to cut off ties with a good friend or beloved family member because they got too dependent on drugs or alcohol. Or fame. And this is what makes me sad.