Guest Column: Of water and music—a visit to New Orleans’ Jazz Fest
By Valeri DeCastris
My family loves our On the Waterfront festival. We’re proud of it, and boast of it to out-of-towners. We always discover great music and see old friends. And it’s such a bargain! Hearing this year’s naysayers criticize it, we reflected on our other festival experiences. We take in Milwaukee’s Summerfest, Chicago’s jazz and blues festivals and Quad Cities’ Bix Beiderbecke and Mississippi Blues festivals. How lucky we are to have such music within driving distance and On the Waterfront in our back yard. In April, we traveled to New Orleans to see family and to catch the world-famous Jazz Fest.
Entering Tangipahoa Parish, home of my maternal family, we stumbled upon Tickfaw’s Italian Festival. Although small, it was nice, and the chairman was a distant cousin. In Independence, home of the Sicilian Festival, we marveled at the red, white and green water tower and police cars. South Rockford’s Independence Avenue is its namesake. Mayor Ragusa opened their Italian Museum for us. Its exhibits were a mirror of Rockford’s Sicilian community with family pictures and references to our city. Immigrants from the island of Sicily generally arrived at the port of New Orleans, and some ventured north for industrial jobs. In Rockford, the Sicilians comprise the largest group of Italian Americans, and most have origins and relatives in Louisiana.
We spent weeks in New Orleans, along the coast of Mississippi and in the chilling civil rights sites of Alabama. Five years later, the devastation of Katrina was astounding. Not to mention the oil spill. Everyone had a story about “the water.” My aunt and uncle lost everything, even their china. Yet, the spirit of the affected people was incredible. We visited Musician’s Village, a fledgling Katrina Museum and the reopened American Italian Museum and Library. Eighty percent of New Orleans was underwater in 2005.
Jazz Fest’s return in 2006, to the rallying cry of Bruce Springsteen, was as much a proverbial shot in the arm to the city as was the Saints’ Super Bowl win. The 40-year-old festival is held on two spring weekends at the fairgrounds. There are 12 stages, exhibits, vendors and Louisiana cuisine. The cost is $45-$60 per day, and the festival runs from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. The music is top-notch and eclectic, local and international—from jazz to blues, R&B, gospel, Cajun, folk, Latin, rock, zydeco, Afro-Caribbean, country, bluegrass and rap. A musical bouillabaisse that made our heads swim as we tried valiantly to rush from stage to stage—not an easy feat when it got muddy. Women wore brightly-colored rubber boots—survival gear—even my old Carbondale friend, Shawn Colvin.
Although we love all of these other festivals, and no comparison would be fair, we actually prefer our own little festival. On the Waterfront is more affordable and manageable, and it benefits charities. And the parking is free. In so many ways, Rockfordians really don’t know what they have. Let’s support our hometown festival. After all, it is Illinois’ largest music festival.
Valeri DeCastris is a Rockford native, environmental scientist and community activist.
From the Oct. 6-12, 2010 issue
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