Space, Entitlement and Spectacle at New Orleans Jazzfest

by Nick Skilton, Peta Wolifson & Shaun McKiernan

(Enjoying slushies earlier in the day before things got crazily crazy.)

(Enjoying slushies earlier in the day before things got crazily crazy.)

Last year, three geography postgraduate students attended a music festival in the birthplace of jazz. This is what they found…

A Summary of the Day: Nick and Shaun

The Jazz and Heritage Festival is a big deal in New Orleans (NOLA). I don’t think we realised how big a deal until we were submerged in a sea of sweat, smuggled spirits, and sound. But we’ll get to that. ‘NOLA Jazzfest’ as it commonly known has grown from its humble beginnings in 1970 when 350 people attended. On that day, Duke Ellington, The Preservation Hall Band, Fats Domino, and Mahalia Jackson (who was not booked, but simply heard about the Festival and showed up to sing), plus many others performed. In 2015, 460,000 punters turned up over the 10 days (2 weekends with the week in between), the largest attendance since Hurricane Katrina. Miserable weather on the first weekend however saw to it that the second weekend accommodated the bulk of that number but random locals we encountered in the following days claimed (since the organisers now no longer release daily attendance figures) that the Saturday that we attended may have rivalled the 2001 single day record of 160,000 attendees when Dave Matthews Band and Mystikal performed during the peak of their powers. Anyway, you get the picture. It was packed.

(It looks small but it’s really not. However, still not big enough for Saturday’s crowd.)

(It looks small but it’s really not. However, still not big enough for Saturday’s crowd.)

It is fitting that a NOLA heritage festival is held at the Fair Grounds Race Course. With a history dating back to 1872, it is the third oldest continuously operating thoroughbred racetrack in the United States. When we arrived at around 1pm, the crowds were big, but still relatively manageable. We saw the New Orleans Indians strutting down the paths that moved between some of the hundreds of food stalls, with local food staples such as: crawfish beignets, cochon de lait sandwiches, alligator sausage po’ boy (sandwich), boiled crawfish, softshell crab po’boy, Cajun jambalaya, jalapeño bread, fried green tomatoes, oyster patties, muffulettas, red beans and rice, and crawfish Monica. For foodies, a full list of the incredible options can be found at: The lines were crazy though and the heat had managed to switch my stomach off. Realistically, I had one thing on my mind, and the whole reason for me being there in the first place: Sir Elton.

By 3pm the crowds had ballooned. Space become a premium commodity and we began to suspect that we were experiencing something both extraordinary and spectacular. We attempted to make our way to the main stage to see Jerry Lee Lewis. I don’t think I even really knew he was still alive, let alone banging out hits from a bygone era on a baby grand piano, looking every bit the distinguished albeit tiny southern gentleman. But at 80 years old, it didn’t appear that ‘Killer’ had lost touch with the keys, and there was still a whole lotta shakin’ going on. Try as we might, considering our distance from the stage, it was hard to concentrate on the tiny man. Of more pressing (literally) interest was the sea of people. Colourful flags on poles erupted from the morass and people were fighting their way both to the front and away from it. Early-comers had staked out their little patch of turf with blankets, chairs, coolers. Realistically, had this not been the case, there would have been more space to go around. We just parked ourselves off to one side of the flow and let the crowds, the sun, and the music wash over us, and were it not for the kindness of strangers lending us some sunscreen, we could have incinerated there and then.

(A sea of people.)

(A sea of people.)

It was on the way out to catch another act that things got really vividly disquieting. There was absolutely no space to turn around, sandwiched as we were on all sides, to see if we were still together. You had to rely on faith that the flow would keep you together. We lost Peta from our party of three in the flow of traffic when she was swallowed up two or three people ahead of us. The crowds were such that we didn’t see her again until the end of the day. Bumper to bumper we shuffled, people moving away from the stage, people moving towards, everyone jostling, the quietly uncomfortable and the boisterous reveller alike, each person dealing with the affective invasion of their personal space in unique ways. Generally I need a lot of personal space. Elevators, crowds, being jostled almost anywhere is a genuine discomfort, so this was a special kind of torture. I endured the 20 plus minute ordeal of escaping that part of the raceground by becoming disembodied and then experience what felt like floating above the crowd. Unaccustomed to out-of-body experiences, it was disconcerting sure, but that allowed me to feel some kind of perverse pleasure in the experience. My body became a mere signifier in space. If nothing else, Jazzfest helped me transcend for a little that day.

By the time it took for Shaun and I to eventually find some space and make a toilet stop, we had missed Big Freedia and it was time to head right back into the seething mire to see Elton John. We attempted to avoid the crowds by coming towards to stage from the side, but it was much the same situation as during Jerry Lee Lewis. Obviously the enormous loudspeakers weren’t designed to play laterally because we could barely hear anything. Shaun and I inserted ourselves in an unofficial pathway running between a couple of rows of chairs. The people in the chairs directly in front of us (or under us as is perhaps more accurate) had been there all day. We tried to be respectful of their space but it was starting to become a situation of everyone for themselves. As people still tried to get closer to the stage, or escape the chaos, people’s makeshift camps began to disintegrate as traffic began to move away from the more obvious pathways that had choked up, a problem that we were quite clearly a part of but there was really no alternative; there was no way we were going to get stuck in the grinder again.

(The person in the hat was immediately in front of us with his partner to the right. I’m surprised they lasted as long as they did.)

(The person in the hat was immediately in front of us with his partner to the right. I’m surprised they lasted as long as they did.)

About 3 songs in to Elton’s set, I gave up trying to listen to the music, and since we couldn’t see any of the big screens sidestage either, I just began to people-watch to a faint Elton John soundtrack. A couple of songs later, the middle-aged couple in front decided to pack up and go home. Another person moving through the flow space at that time sympathised with them: “They’ve got no respect. We’ve been here for hours” they said in disgust. Had they been at the back of the stage area earlier though as we had been, they would have realised that the regular social contract clearly didn’t apply in this situation because of the sheer volume of people that had piled into the raceground. It was truly awesome to behold. Some other folks nearby began to dance with refugees from the crowd as they migrated through the flow spaces that appeared through their camp, making the most of a bad situation. Others nearby took a different tack, attempting to draw upon the inertness of the chairs to form some kind of barrier, also trying to use their legs as a dam to stem the tide. Impelled by the crowd behind them still trying to get to Elton, people moving through the flow spaces were forced to just step over other people or go through people’s camps that had been carefully set up during the day most likely to avoid the crush of the crowd.

Having given up on the music, the whole mess became an amusing shambolic leviathan. People were expressing both solidarity with other enduring festivalgoers, and disgust at the organisation and chaos and apparent lack of civility. Any sense of order had completely gone out the window. In many ways, it summed up so many of the things that I love about this city. My understanding is that they sell as many tickets and people want, and then let the whole mess resolve itself. No security anywhere that I could see. No police. It stands in stark contrast to what I imagine a large Australian festival to be like: cops everywhere and heavily manicured spaces.

The situation at Elton John was completely unlike the situation we found at the stage where T.I. was playing. There were no chairs, no camps, and the age demographic was considerably younger. The flow spaces were uninhibited. People moved from the sidestage fringes to the more tightly packed frontstage relatively easily despite huge numbers. People also seemed to be having way more fun. Without being hemmed in by camp chairs, there was a spatial flexibility that meant that people could move and the surrounding mobile bodies could accommodate them. So people danced, people sang, and T.I. punctuated the ends of his songs with an abrupt gunshot soundclip.

After recovering Peta, our lost party member, we attempted to leave the raceground at 7pm. Right when all the music had finished. A slow moving line out grew into a giant wedge that once again seemed to not be going anywhere. There was only one tiny space through which everyone had to leave. Even though we’d only been there for 6 hours, we were exhausted and another squashed together queue was a hard pill to swallow. Eventually we made it out into precious space, and watched revellers try and fit into a tiny bar across the road, while we took off to find the car, passing without a second glance all the 6 year olds trying to sell us lemonade and the 26 year olds trying to sell us vegan jello shots on the side of the road. The whole thing was a unique and entertaining spectacle that I hope never to repeat.



Reflections on the Day: Peta

A few nights after JazzFest I escaped for dinner to a quiet, upmarket Italian restaurant on the edge of the French Quarter in New Orleans. It was a singular tourist bubble amid the larger, much more exciting bubble of the French Quarter. It was very un-New Orleans. Rather than succumb to it, I alleviated my sense of tourist remorse by sitting outside – part consumer, part observer – on the fringe of this tourist bubble. At the table next to me were a friendly father and daughter who asked me about my experience at JazzFest. He himself had been visiting New Orleans for the festival for 30 years and filled in the gaps for me about my own day at the festival – who I’d seen, who I’d liked (I didn’t have a program) and what on earth was with that crowd. He explained the long-held conflict between the ‘chair people’ and the ‘non-chair people’. The former group take often multiple chairs each to the festival and early in the day set them up in prime position for the outside stages so they can return, whenever they like, to enjoy the show. The non-chair folk don’t. Nor do they remove nor sit on the empty chairs; this, I don’t understand.

Looking back on our day at JazzFest with this clarification of my observations, the festival atmosphere would seem fairly un-convivial – with underlying aggression even. No working together to contribute to an enjoyable shared atmosphere but a mass individualistic expression of entitlement towards space. With space at a premium in a way I’d never before experienced on that scale, people unapologetically took up multiple viewing spots at a time – space that for most of the day was unable to be enjoyed for its intended use. This is a problem, of course, and will probably only continue to get worse at future JazzFests as ‘non-chair people’ respond with their own expressions of entitlement. I hope not. That aside, this issue and its effects on space at the festival, somewhat surprisingly did not end up characterising my day. There were, of course, times where space was the issue – namely escaping the Jerry Lee Lewis crowd – but the spatial and temporal moments in which I found relaxation and enjoyment contained numerous instances of conviviality, and both shared and individual enjoyment of the music was allowed to sneak in, unforced, as the focus.

My own (thus far untold) part of the story begins at Jerry Lee Lewis. We waited for a while for him to come on stage. I can’t remember how long it was but as soon as we got in to that crowd I wanted to escape it. The sun was blazing down. I was definitely getting sunburnt and I knew it. I was hot, tired, thirsty, hungry and growing increasingly concerned about skin cancer. I didn’t know Jerry Lee Lewis’ music and at that point I didn’t care to know it. I just wanted out. I was utterly horrified at the prospect of remaining in that spot until Elton had performed (which was hours away). I sat on the ground with my umbrella half opened over my head, with the moving masses on my left, people standing in front of and behind me, and people in comfy-looking chairs to my right. The latter group looked to be having a grand old time – they shared stories, shade and beers. It was still early and the ‘chair people’ were winning.

When we decided to get out of this crowd I was at the front of our little group. I’m not someone who typically gets claustrophobic. The touching doesn’t particularly bother me nor does the proximity. As I squeezed my way between the crowd, however, already not feeling great and getting even hotter and hungrier, it became the genuine fear that this mass of people was never going to end that got to me. It lasted for minutes and minutes and minutes and minutes. This fear overtook any concern of losing the other guys. Looking back just wasn’t an option. Onwards and out, and immediately to the food stall with the shortest line. Felafel it is! (Again, not very New Orleans, but… not terrible!). Then, straight to the coolest place I could think of (temperature-wise) – the Gospel Tent – the perfect place for a sweaty atheist eating a felafel. I saw a man with a face tattoo sing with the voice of an angel and someone offered me their seat as they got up to leave. Things were looking up.

I had the time but no idea where or when anything was on, although being finally at a non brain-melting temperature and enjoying some sweet tunes, this didn’t particularly bother me. I ended up heading to see Elton about halfway through his two-hour set. I wandered in near to the stage, thinking I probably wouldn’t get close enough to the centre to be able to see, but hoping I might be able to hear and have a little dance. Plus, I was too traumatised from my earlier experience to attempt to tackle that same crowd. I was pleasantly surprised. When I arrived, the exodus of the pissed-off chair people was nearly complete, and those that were staying seemed mostly unbothered that non-chair people, dancing and enjoying themselves, obscured their views. There was a soothing hint of marijuana in the air and room to dance my freestyle nonsense without judgement. I got reasonably close to the middle and the front so I could see Elton John in all his joyful, sparkly glory (Nick – I’m so jealous reading this!). In my zone of awareness the crowd shared smiles, dance moves and Elton’s delightful performance. Things were good. From where I was standing, the non-chair people had won.


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