Reading the paper, watching TV or just living here, it's easy to get focused on the problems New Orleans faces every day: a seemingly intractable murder rate, a severely troubled police department and justice system, social and financial inequities and, now, even an NFL scandal. It can get depressing. Often we in the press get assailed for not reporting "the good news," so here's some good news for all of us:
The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival is back.
If a chef took all the things that made our city a wonderful place to live — the music, the food, the art, the architecture, the literature, the oral histories, the cultural activities, the celebratory spirit — put it all in one pot and let it simmer down to a reduction, the result would be Jazz Fest. Of course, people carp about something every year — it's gotten too big, too expensive, too crowded, too un-jazzy — but it's still an experience that's unduplicated anywhere on earth. Other cities have jazz festivals, but they're not Jazz Fest.
Yes, we have legends like Irma Thomas and Dr. John and the Neville Brothers and the Marsalis family, but we also have legends-in-the-making, young people like Troy "Trombone Shorty" Andrews, Sasha Masakowski, Amanda Shaw and the Stooges Brass Band, who will be carrying the New Orleans musical torch for the next generation. We have the Rebirth Brass Band bringing home a Grammy Award and we have Terence Blanchard bringing the New Orleans sound to Broadway in the first African-American production of A Streetcar Named Desire.
Terrance Osborne tells our stories in oils. Robert Guthrie, in black-and-white photographs. Tracy Thomson, in millinery. Mitchell Gaudet, in fantastical hand-cast glass. Too many writers to mention put our stories on the page and on Kindle (but this year, any Festgoer would do well to pick up Ben Sandmel's knockout new biography, Ernie K-Doe: The R&B Emperor of New Orleans). In the kids' tent, children learn about the African, Native American, Haitian, French and French-Canadian elements of our corner of America. At the Allison Miner Music Heritage Stage, legendary music figures sit for intimate talks and Q&A sessions. Throughout the Fair Grounds, visitors marvel at a peculiar New Orleans pleasure: turning a corner to come across a Mardi Gras Indian tribe, resplendent in suits that outshine the sun, chanting and dancing like a mirage made real.
Perhaps the most magical, transformative aspect of Jazz Fest is the element of chance. People who come to hear the likes of Bruce Springsteen or the Beach Boys might find themselves stopped instead at the Fais-Do-Do stage to hear Geno Delafose or the Pine Leaf Boys put new interpretations on centuries-old music. There's also the Gospel Tent, where every year someone comes in to get a break from the crush outside and ends up spending hours, mesmerized, by the richness and power of Southern religious music.
And that's just what lies within the paddocks and the grandstands of the Fair Grounds. Outside the gates, for two weeks, the city itself is an extension of the festival. From nightclubs and bars to French Quarter street corners, the city is suffused with as much music outside the festival walls as inside. Each year, the late-night sessions around town seem to stretch later and later, leaving Festgoers with the decision: stay up or go to bed? Who wants to miss any of it?
Going out to dinner requires some planning, whether you're a native or a Fest head. Lines form outside venerable fried-chicken shacks, Creole eateries, pho shops; neighborhood restaurants get an influx of curious visitors tipped off by their friends or anonymous raves on the Internet. For the most popular places in town (or any restaurant next to a music club), you're likely out of luck if you don't have a reservation, but the good news is: There's probably some place just as good within walking distance. Ask a local.
Put aside the monetary boon to the city (if you can — it's substantial) and just concentrate on the nontangible benefits to late April and early May in New Orleans. If you have a spare room, a sofa or even a square of carpet, you might have company. People run into friends they see only once a year. Families gather to grill or just sit on the porch and greet strangers. Most of all, Jazz Fest is a time of year when New Orleans is rich in what is ultimately its greatest export: joy.
Jazz Fest is back. And that is good news indeed.