By Christine Lee
The casual music lover wanders through the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival the same way the great Mississippi River winds across the fair state of Louisiana: carefree and unbounded. One moment you’re lured in by the country sweet sounds of The Deslondes under the forgiving shade of the Lagniappe stage; around the corner the infectious energy of gospel singer and former Fisk University student Kim Che’re has you on your feet singing praises to the lord; and if you’re itching to catch hot contemporary acts like Bruce Springsteen, Christina Aguilera and Arcade Fire, you can make your way into the hot sun where revelers set up tarps, tents and plenty of supplies to drink and dance the day away by the mainstage. With a dozen stages to navigate and hundreds of acts to sample, there are endless ways to get lost in the music.
Among the regular festival goers are New Orleans natives Gayle Robinson, 48, and her husband Jimmy Robinson, 58. Both have been coming to jazzfest since they were children and have continued the tradition, arriving a half hour before gates open at 11am and decamping when gates close at 7pm, everyday. They come bearing coolers, chairs, drinks, water spray bottles, bubble makers, umbrellas, tents, and tarp to spread on the ground. Their neighbor marks their territory with a tall flag that says “mothership” so they can find their way back to their mini camp in a crowd that numbers in the tens of thousands. In a show of true southern hospitality, Gayle and Jimmy have brought extra supplies to spread around. When the sun is particularly oppressive, Gale invites me to sit down in one of her chairs. She dips a rag in cold water to put around my neck and showers me with a cool mist. She asks another festival goer if she needs a bottle of water.
“That’s just the jazz fest way,” says Gayle. “It’s part of our extended family.”
Indeed, Gale has made and kept many friends from Jazz Fest. She introduces me to a couple from Texas who she says she’s been reuniting with for 20 years.
“Lifetime feelings for these people, this one time only when we get together. It’s kind of like home week, you know, like we had never been apart.”
I ask Gayle if she’s met with Tennesseans.
“I’m sure I have …I’ve actually met more out of town people than local people, which is really cool.”
She takes a long drag off her cigarette and continues to ask other folks if they need her help. It dawns on me that Jazz Fest is every bit about the people as it is about the music. Gayle’s festival neighbors offer her goods as much as she offers her own; the benefits of this community is open to you proportionately to how open you are to it. The festival concluded its 10-day run during the first weekend of May, but it will be back next year.