The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival is an event marked by ritual.
Every year, thousands of fans flock to the Fair Grounds to hear hundreds of bands. Many get hooked, and as they return, they find themselves drawn to the same foods, the same stages and that same perfect spot in the fields.
Sometimes, that spot gets marked with a flag, and tradition is born.
For John Hyman, the Jazz Fest tradition has been going on nonstop for more than 40 years.
Hyman, who is originally from England, came to New Orleans for Mardi Gras in 1976 and never left.
The same year, he attended Jazz Fest, and has been going pretty much every day of every year since then.
“Oh yeah, there’s nothing like it,” the 76-year-old lawyer, real estate agent and small business owner said Friday.
On Friday, the festival’s opening day in 2016, Hyman got to the Fair Grounds shortly after the gates opened. He could be seen before noon noshing on the pheasant, quail and andouille gumbo from the Lafayette restaurant Prejean’s — a dish he’s enjoyed consistently since it was introduced to Jazz Fest.
“It’s the first thing I do,” he said, chuckling. “And I’ll get it several times during the course of the festival.”
Hyman isn’t the only person to have a food-based ritual at Jazz Fest. Many patrons said Friday they couldn’t fathom starting a day at the festival without first stopping at Liuzza’s by the Track, the Creole tavern that serves gumbo and signature BBQ shrimp po-boys, but during the last weekend of April and the first weekend of May becomes better known for its signature, pre-fest bloody mary.
Among them is 61-year-old Bonnie Champagne, who on Friday was sitting on a folding chair with two friends on the sidewalk outside the bar, enjoying the scenery in the street as the music started inside the festival gates. Neither she nor her friends were in any hurry, they said, to catch the acts going on inside.
Of course, there are stranger customs.
Across from Champagne, a group of 25 men and women had gathered on the street, where they were drinking and taking photographs of each other. They had all taken a bus together from the West Bank, a tradition that started in 1998 and has grown exponentially since.
Some members of the group were holding up photos of two friends who couldn’t make it this year because of work — signs, they said, for which they would ultimately buy food and drinks once inside.
It’s a ritual that was started years before, and has become a running joke since.
“We give her drinks, and just generally act foolish,” 40-year-old Alicia Ritter, a nurse, said as she pointed to the photograph of Lori Dean, a fellow nurse. “It’s fun.”
And, of course, the festival attracts plenty of colorful characters, including 63-year-old Keith Hurtt.
On Friday, Hurtt sidled up to Hyman, an old friend, and offered everyone at the table a bite of his fried chicken livers with pepper jelly, from the Praline Connection booth.
Hurtt, who said he has been going to Jazz Fest every year for 42 years, said he never misses a day without stopping by the Kids’ Tent — whether children are with him or not.
“Some major acts will always play one set,” he said. “Plus they’ve got these great PB&J sandwiches, and the bathroom line isn’t long, because the kids don’t drink beer.”
Hurtt says he also always goes barefoot at Jazz Fest, regardless of the weather.
Some might find festival rituals strange. But during the festival’s first interview at the Alison Miner Heritage Stage, Tommy Malone, the longtime singer for the New Orleans band the subdudes, summed it up.
“People come here because we’re unique,” Malone told interviewer David Fricke.
“There’s only one of these. And it’s very hard to explain to outsiders.”