After last year’s Elton John-induced gridlock at the New Orleans Jazz Fest, Quint Davis realized more than a “tweak” was necessary. The festival’s longtime producer-director and his staff decided they needed to do something “dramatic.”
“We ended up with the pyramids of Jazz Fest,” Davis said.
His “pyramids” are the towering bleachers that have been built at the Acura and Congo Square stages — the most significant alteration to the Jazz Fest landscape in years.
Three new bleacher sections at the back of the Acura Stage field stand 26 rows tall. Each seats 1,100 people. A slightly smaller version is set up perpendicular to the Congo Square Stage.
To Davis, the bleachers represent a change on par with moving the gospel and jazz tents from the Fair Grounds infield to a parking lot.
“This is ‘new’ on a big scale,” he said this week, after taking in the view from high atop the new bleachers. “When you see it on a blueprint, it’s not like coming out here to see this.”
Festivalgoers will get their first look when the Fair Grounds gates open Friday, April 22 for the 47th edition of what is officially the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival presented by Shell.
The bleachers are not the only change in store for 2016. Chairs, blankets and tarps are no longer permitted anywhere on the oval dirt track surrounding the Fair Grounds infield. And the standing-room-only zones in front of the major stages have expanded.
Overall, there is less room and, Davis hopes, less incentive to set up the type of campsites that contribute to congestion on the infield and track. But the festival stopped short of banning chairs, tarps and blankets entirely.
“We didn’t ban anything,” Davis said. “It’s somewhat controlled, so it’s not like the Louisiana water hyacinth that consumes the whole bayou. We had to have some control so the festival still works.”
Overall, Jazz Fest attendance has still not rebounded to where it stood before Hurricane Katrina, but it has trended steadily upward. The 2015 total was the highest since the storm.
The second Saturday starred Elton John, one of the most popular acts to ever play the festival, and was easily the biggest single day in at least a decade. Jazz Fest has experienced only three or four such mega-crowds in its 47-year history.
When the grass infield filled up before Elton, people spilled over to the dirt track and set up chairs and blankets. Big crowds at Congo Square also routinely bleed over onto the track.
For both the comfort and safety of patrons, an impassable track is unacceptable.
“We want people to be comfortable and have a great experience,” Davis said, and last year, “there were some people that didn’t have a great experience.”
The oval dirt track around the infield is the festival’s “superhighway,” Davis said. “If you want to see some of Pearl Jam and some of Van Morrison on Saturday – which I want to myself – that’s how you do it.
“When that got cut off last year (during Elton John), it was dysfunctional, and it redirected all those people into the infield.”
Beyond the sheer numbers, the increasingly popular practice of claiming ground with blankets, tarps and collapsible chairs has increased congestion at the major stages. That runs counter to the spirit of a multi-stage, multi-genre musical festival, Davis said.
“The DNA of the festival is accessibility and flow. Once you come in, you get it all. Wandering from stage to stage is part of our DNA. We needed to get that back with more standing room in front of the stages.”
The chair-and-blanket fans “have their own sociology,” Davis said. “We didn’t want to displace that. But part of it is having a place to sit. We’ve added 3,000 or 4,000 places to sit” in the new bleachers.
It fell to Tague Richardson, Jazz Fest’s veteran site director, to realize Davis’ vision. More than once, Davis said, Richardson has told him, “Your dreams are my nightmares.”
Richardson proposed extending the Acura bleachers from the grassy infield over the surrounding drainage ditch to about halfway across the dirt track. The Congo Square bleacher also covers about half the track’s width.
Davis believes people will naturally decide not to congregate on the track behind the bleachers: “What is the great Jazz Fest advantage of sitting in the dust and mud in a place where you can’t see the show?”
The new bleachers are not as luxurious as the private, premium-ticket bleachers closer to the stage, which boast padded seats, a roof, restrooms with running water and other amenities.
But they are open to all on a first-come, first-serve basis, and they do have some aesthetic advantages. That they’re painted a shade of green reminiscent of traditional New Orleans shutters was, Davis said, a happy accident.
In combination with the VIP bleachers flanking the Acura field, the new bleachers partially enclose the vast space and make it feel more intimate. Gazing out from the Acura Stage is now more like looking at the lower bowl of a stadium.
From the bleachers themselves, festivalgoers will be able to see the downtown New Orleans skyline, including the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The raised seating also affords an overview of the busiest end of the Fair Grounds.
“It’s a view that no one’s ever had, except from the grandstand,” Davis said. “It’s like being a human aerial. You have this bird’s-eye view of the festival itself. How cool is that?”
Change at the festival — like change in New Orleans as a whole — is often greeted with skepticism. Years ago, the idea of placing a single jumbo video screen next to the Acura Stage seemed alien. Screens now accompany several stages and are a normal part of the festival backdrop.
The new regulations and bleachers won’t really be put to the test until Saturday, when what is likely to be a large weekend crowd shows up to hear Pearl Jam at the Acura Stage, Van Morrison at the Gentilly Stage and Maxwell at the Congo Square Stage.
The festival attempts to balance personal freedom and overall functionality. Security will work to enforce the new rules. But ultimately, Davis said, attendees must buy in.
“People define the festival — the festival doesn’t define itself,” he said. “If the public doesn’t do some self-enforcement, then it’s really hard.”
The standing-room-only boundaries are designated not with barricades, Davis notes, but a less obtrusive, less authoritative line painted on the grass, “like a football field. I have no doubt people will respect that line.”
He is optimistic that “bleacher etiquette” will prevail. The bleachers aren’t reserved seating; he wants attendees to resist the temptation to “hold” seats for others. “That’s claiming ownership of space at the festival. That stops flow and accessibility.”
The changes are a work in progress. Earlier this week, Davis was still trying to determine where to move the remote Acura Stage video screen so it wouldn’t block the view of the stage from the bleachers. Maybe it would end up on the back of the sound-mixing tent in the middle of the field. Maybe it wouldn’t.
“When you do something new, you have to learn,” he said. “We’re learning as we go along.”
Follow Keith Spera on Twitter, @KeithSpera.