Going to Jazz Fest isn’t something most people do just once.
Many of those wandering around the Fair Grounds this past weekend and next have been doing so since the early 1970s, keeping the yearly spring tradition going as the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival completes its fifth decade.
But for the past few days, planes on their way to New Orleans have also brought lots of first-time visitors with one thing in mind — scratching a trip to Jazz Fest off their bucket list.
“We specifically came to see Al Green,” Nick Kanellakis, who’s visiting from the San Francisco Bay area, said Sunday, when Green closed out the day's music on the Congo Square Stage.
Kanellakis said he hasn’t had a chance to see Green at California music festivals he regularly goes to, like Coachella. The chance to see him live — while also making it to Jazz Fest — was enough for Kanellakis to decide to make the nearly 2,000-mile trip.
Nik Mazzola, who also frequents music festivals near his home in San Diego, said he’s always wanted — really, really wanted — to make it to Jazz Fest.
So much that there’s no question the 25-hour drive was worth it.
“Jazz Fest was on the bucket list,” Mazzola said. “Got two little kids — drove out here actually in a van. Dropped the kids off at the grandparents’ house in Texas; then it worked out perfectly.”
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Mazzola said he and his wife were attracted by the “nostalgia” of Jazz Fest, which he said has a more laid-back feel than festivals in California.
“We’ve been wanting to come out here forever,” he said. “Everyone just goes out of their way to say ‘Hi,’ and — perfect example — the police on the way in were shaking everybody’s hands like, ‘Hey, welcome to New Orleans. Welcome to the Jazz Festival.’ ”
Every year, about a third of the non-local Jazz Fest attendees are first-timers, according to a festival spokesman — mainly attracted by the desire simply to visit New Orleans or else the chance to see a specific artist perform.
That’s about the same number as festival veterans who have been coming for at least the past 10 years, the spokesman said.
For Sunday, the specific performer that many first-timers wanted to see was clearly Al Green. But another big draw was Van Morrison, with both Kanellakis and Mazzola saying they’d make it a point to see the Northern Irish singer on the Acura Stage. The problem, as so often happens at Jazz Fest, was that he was performing at the same time as Green.
Sunday was a day of gratitude and tribute at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.
For Bob and Diana Robertson, Morrison was actually the only reason they made it out to Jazz Fest. The two happened to be in New Orleans on vacation from Columbus, Ohio, and the chance to see Morrison was too good to pass up.
“I didn’t come (to New Orleans) for Jazz Fest — it was a perk,” Diana Robertson said.
Still, the Robertsons were glad they made it out to the Fair Grounds, and they said they might even come back to Jazz Fest one day.
But if they do, there’s one mistake they’ll be sure not to make again — a sentiment that seemed repeated among many first-time visitors.
“Next time we won’t be buying chairs — we’ll bring our own,” Bob Robertson said.