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Wow Place #250: New Orleans Jazz Fest

I’m always wary about over-hype. “Oh, this guy or this gal is AMAZING. They will change your life!” And then you go see said person(s) and of course they fail to live up to the hype.

Such was my caution, then, when my friend, Tim, insisted that I go see Ornette Coleman while attending the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. “Oh, when you hear him, you might think it all sounds atonal, but Ornette is a master. He knows exactly what he’s doing. You’ll love it!”

I will say that attending the Jazz Fest is like going to a conference where you’re faced with multiple, fascinating, concurrent sessions; it’s impossible not to feel FOMO (fear of missing out). “Oh man, I want to see that rock band over here. Or that country band over there. But wait, I don’t want to miss the Preservation Hall Jazz Band!” Too many options!

Lasting two weeks and attracting tens of thousands of music fans, the festival was founded in 1970. Interestingly, it had been proposed 8 years earlier but took a while to get going due to worries about tensions between whites and African Americans co-existing in one location. Over the years, the festival has grown by leaps and bounds, offering not only a wide selection of musical acts but also a variety of local food and craft vendors. The official food policy of the festival is “no carnival food.” While there, I remember enjoying a delicious soft-shell crab sandwich, followed by a perfectly-prepared plate of beignets. Other delicacies you might find at the festival include alligator sausage po’boys, boiled crawfish, Cajun jambalaya, jalapeno bread, fried green tomatoes, cochon de lait sandwiches, oyster patties, muffulettas and red beans and rice. You get the idea. It makes me hungry just thinking about it.

Ornette Coleman’s performance tent, when I finally find it, is surprisingly small compared to some of the other festival venues. My guess is Ornette prefers a more intimate space for his performances, compared to some of the other giant stages, with their mega amps and their thousands of attendees. As for Ornette’s jazz, I find myself agreeing with half of my friend’s assessment. His music IS atonal, and Coleman clearly seems to know what he’s doing. But for myself, I don’t find it very pleasant. I suspect Ornette’s style of jazz is like reading the Irish novelist, James Joyce. You have to be a scholar to really understand how revolutionary he is – which, alas, I’m not. Still, I can appreciate a master craftsman like Ornette Coleman, expertly plying his craft; I’m willing to ascribe any deficiencies in appreciation to the listener (me) vs. the performer.

In the end, my favorite performer in the festival is this wild-haired rocker who climbs up the stage scaffolding (where the speakers are positioned) and belts out his songs from way on high, leading the audience in a rowdy chorus of “Let it go, let it go, let it go!” I can’t remember his name, but for me, he definitely lives up to the hype.

(When it comes to hype, the obvious solution is to temper your expectations. But like nearly everything in life, I see the grey area. On the one hand, it stinks to get over-excited about something and then be sorely disappointed when it doesn’t live up to the heady praise. On the other hand, how great is it to feel building anticipation for something and then, remarkably, to have your expectations wildly surpassed! it’s hard to know if you should the middle emotional path – never too high, never to low – or leave yourself open to extreme or peak experiences, even at the risk of crushing disappointment. Who can say which course is correct? I guess only you can decide.)