New Orleans - and all that jazz Festival: Planning pays if you are going to the annual musical extravaganza. Venues are crowded, parking is difficult and accommodations are booked well in advance.

March 23, 1997|By Dave Ferman | Dave Ferman,FORT WORTH STAR-TELEGRAM

Once upon a time, way back in the mid-'80s, it was so easy.

You went to the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and simply strolled from tent to tent, soaking up great music along the way.

The New Orleans Fair Grounds Race Course, where the daytime music events have been held since 1972, was crowded, but not packed: It was possible to enter a tent and get a good seat or nab a choice spot in front of an open-air stage before a set by Max Roach or Ali Farka Toure, to stroll from one end of the grounds to the other in mere minutes -- and then, at night, to easily slip into one of the city's fabled nightclubs for more music.

Well, no more.

Make no mistake, I come to praise Jazzfest, not bury it: After 27 years it has become the music festival in the country, perhaps the world: Bob Dylan, the Allman Brothers, Miles Davis, Mahalia Jackson, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Phish have all played it, plus a huge variety of New Orleans musicians both legendary (the Neville Brothers, Dr. John, the Meters, and on and on) and unknown outside the city limits.

Admission to a full day of music at the racetrack is still a ridiculous bargain -- $12 in advance, $16 at the gate -- and the entire event is safe and smoothly run. Sets usually start on time. Sound systems are equal to the task. Food at the numerous booths is delicious and (by music festival standards, anyway) cheap.

There is even a well-stocked, semi-air-conditioned CD store on the grounds, so you can, theoretically, pick up a group's music just minutes after hearing it live.

Add it all up, and in many ways Jazzfest is the best buffet ever for those who want a big, tangy meal of American music.

But know this, potential or first-time attendees: Jazzfest has, in the past several years, become almost too good and too popular for its own good -- and yours, if you don't know what to expect.

In the past 10 years, attendance has more than doubled, from 228,000 in 1986 to 471,500 last year; in '96, the second and final Saturday, highlighted by a performance by Van Morrison, drew a record 91,000 people to the racetrack.

Choice hotel rooms sell out months in advance, sometimes by January of a given year.

Crowds at the fairgrounds can be dauntingly large, sweaty and slow-moving -- especially at or near a stage where a well-known rock or blues act is playing.

This is not to say you shouldn't go; indeed, anyone who loves American music should attend Jazzfest at least once. But it is to say that enjoying it takes a little more attention to detail and planning than in the past. And that means that these days there are some definite Do's and Don't's.

First, the Don't's:

Don't rent a car. This is a bad idea in New Orleans at any time, but during Jazzfest it's practically suicide. Parking near the festival is impossible to find, and it's not much better in the French Quarter. Plus, cab rides (especially if you're sharing with several other people to and from the festival from the Quarter or a downtown hotel) are infinitely cheaper and less of a hassle.

And if you don't want to go that route, there is a shuttle service that goes from many major hotels and other strategic points to the festival and back for a mere $7. Ask at your hotel.

Don't drink a lot. That is to say, alcohol -- during the day, at the racetrack. Downing multiple brewskis, eating a lot of rich food and wandering in a dense crowd in New Orleans' usually stifling heat is a recipe for feeling like garbage by the afternoon. Mr. Water is your friend -- get to know him!

Now the Do's:

Go, if at all possible, the first weekend, as the locals tend to do. Yes, it will still be crowded, but probably less so. And the music is every bit as good.

"The funny thing about the festival is, it can be really nice the first weekend and really torrid and humid the next," says Dennis Formento, editor of the literary magazine Mesechabe.

Take small bills. Early in the day, perhaps back at the hotel, stock up on $1s and $5s. This will make it easier and faster to pay for a cab ride and food and drink.

What to wear

Stay cool. Wear sensible clothing with lots of pockets -- and most definitely a hat. This is no time to dress to impress; shorts, light-colored shirts (preferably ones you don't mind dripping food on, because you'll probably eat standing up) and comfortable shoes are the rule of the day.

You're going to get hot, perhaps very hot, and you're going to walk around a lot on dirt and grass, and tennis shoes are essential. Applying sunscreen is a fab idea, too, as is soaking a neckerchief in water, wringing it out, and tying it around your neck. On a real scorcher of an afternoon, this can be pure bliss.

Have a plan. Get a map of the racetrack and a schedule of events. It has just become too crowded to wander aimlessly, and getting a lay of the land will up your enjoyment factor by a whole bunch. Plus, if you know where you are, you can easily tell how far it is to food, or water, or whatever tent and act you're seeking.

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