On the morning of what’s known as Locals Day, groups of youngsters in matching shirts milled around the Fair Grounds, enjoying the beautiful weather while giggling, taking selfies and learning about the city’s rich culture.
The Thursday before the second weekend of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival presented by Shell has long been a go-to day for New Orleanians, who are able to enjoy the Fair Grounds sights and sounds before out-of-towners invade en masse for the weekend. And early on, the festival began giving free tickets to local students for the day.
Compared with the adults gathered in front of the music stages, the younger visitors were headed in larger numbers to the mango freeze, strawberry lemonade and sno-ball booths. Po-boys — cochon de lait and shrimp — seemed to be the most popular dishes. And no child interviewed had even checked the music schedules for the day; they preferred to wander around and stop when they heard something they liked, such as a set from jazz trumpeter Shamarr Allen & the Underdawgs that revved up the crowd.
“If you’re from New Orleans and you hear jazz or brass band music, you can’t just sit down and stay still,” said Eleanor McMain Secondary School student Javen Stevenson, 15.
“We’re listening to music that we don’t normally listen to,” said Braquel Jones, 16, who sings soprano in the choir at McMain.
On Thursday morning, before the Fair Grounds opened to the public, the McMain choir performed gospel songs for a tentful of schoolkids. Appearing along with the choir were local celebrities like Marlon Horton, better known as bounce artist and restaurateur 10th Ward Buck, who explained how the festival’s traditional music is linked to the contemporary music he makes.
These days, an increasing number of Jazz Fest visitors extend their stays to span both weekends. But on Thursday, the Fair Grounds crowd still seemed to be overwhelmingly local. And some of those who work at the festival said they look forward to this day, partly because they’re charmed by the schoolchildren who walk around and giggle in clumps.
All morning, the Fair Grounds’ paths were jammed with children wearing T-shirts and uniforms from schools such as Louise McGehee, McMain, Einstein Charter, Nelson Medard, ReNEW, Holy Cross, St. Leo the Great and Lafayette Academy.
While the Roots of Music band marched along one path, a woman gave an impromptu dance lesson to four Lafayette seventh-graders who saw her dancing and asked about the steps.
On the other side of the path, Erica Garner escorted part of her son Ahmad’s fourth-grade class from St. Leo into a virtual-reality tent. “We’ve been taking them around the entire Fair Grounds,” she said. “They’re able to see the exhibits and hear the music before the crowds get so big on the weekend.”
Near the Congo Square stage, artist Jessica Strahan leaned back and enjoyed a cool breeze as potential buyers admired her paintings on canvas. While artists who exhibited last weekend endured monsoon-like rainstorms, Strahan lucked out because she prefers the second weekend of the festival.
“I choose it because of the extra day — Thursday,” she said. “Plus, I like the kids who come by.”
As students passed Strahan’s booth, their eyes were sometimes drawn to paintings of nearly nude figures, covered only by strategically placed crawfish or fleurs-de-lis. Then they would often stop and point and whisper before a teacher or older student would assure them that the images were not controversial.
“It’s art. It’s art,” they’d say, pointing at some of Strahan’s other images — portraits of people and images of owls — and discuss why the person’s skin might be painted blue or how Strahan might have held her paintbrush as she created curls of orange hair atop the head.
It’s a key part of learning called exposure, said artist and longtime educator Richard Thomas, who manned a nearby tent hung with his famous artwork.
Thomas was optimistic that sales would be far better than last weekend. “When it’s wet, people are not in the mood for buying art,” he said, noting that he had no sales at all on Saturday and that he’d spent the worst part of the storm holding his tent together after it was torn in half by the high winds.
Twenty-six years ago, Thomas, now 62, landed his first Jazz Fest poster commission, and it became the first poster that featured a recognizable musician, Fats Domino. But even before then, he had deep festival ties, having spent the previous nine years designing stages and working on many murals with schoolkids, including a 25-by-25-foot mural painted with McDonogh No. 35 students that hung in the grandstand until it was damaged by Hurricane Katrina.
So Thomas said he firmly believes that the schoolchildren wandering by, laughing and eating mango freezes, will better understand the city’s culture and its roots because of their trip to Jazz Fest.
And with adult tickets now at $75, these childhood visits to the Fair Grounds could be literally once-in-a-lifetime chances for some low-income students, he said.
“As they progress in life, they may not be able to come,” Thomas said. But he said he believes that a day of soaking in the music, food and art helps students understand the city’s heritage and culture and, ultimately, to better understand themselves. “We have to own who we are,” he said.
Stevenson said she doesn’t think she’ll major in music at college or will play it for a living. But because she grew up in New Orleans, music will always be a part of her life. “I don’t think that music will ever be far from me,” she said.