Hard Work, Hustle, and Margaritaville: Myriad Dispatches from an Afternoon at Jazz Fest

It’s borderline blasphemous to begin describing any New Orleans tale, let alone one from a music festival, with a sense that’s not auditory, but here I go taking the Saints’ names in vain: Jazz Fest stinks.

To clarify, this isn’t some weak pun referring to the caliber of music therein. No, the festival–an unholy concoction of humidity, well-traversed equine muck, and the kind of folks who are ambivalent towards the whole hygiene thing–legitimately reeks, to the degree that the scent would be off-putting if everything else wasn’t so goddamn entertaining. That idea, the juxtaposition of the want-to-look-away and can’t-look-away, isn’t a bad way to summarize what it’s like in the boundless and shameless being that is modern-day New Orleans.


In a way, I want this post to be like New Orleans–messy, uncoordinated New Orleans. The good mixed in with the bad, a suspension of unequal parts that you can’t quite pin down, what with it changing depending where you shine the light. A post with deep trends and a respect for the past, but with a disarming tendency toward base, primal instincts, a practical nose-thumbing with regard to nuance.

All of which, in a very roundabout way, means that I will be discussing Pitbull, but not until I try to earn some respect first.

Jazz Fest truly is a festival with something for everyone, its holdings covering the entire race track, a blizzard of sensory stimulation. 12 stages span the grounds, but having spent a day there, I say you could stop by maybe eight, max. It’s a borderline irresponsible amount of music contained in an arena that’s simply not designed for music.

And we heard a lot of it, even at some of the tertiary locations. We popped into the Gospel Tent for Kim Che’re (pronunciation unknown), returned for Shirley Caesar, pitched over to the Blues Tent for Carolyn Wonderland. Even managed to swing by Big Chief Monk Boudreaux and the Golden Eagles, a group that really defies expectations, in the sense that your expectations going in are anything but calibrated. It’s worth noting that all artists featured here (that we heard) were good musicians playing pleasant music, but rarely does anything interesting get written about “good musicians playing pleasant music,” so let’s move along.

The big ticket item for me was seeing Irvin Mayfield and the N.O. Jazz Orchestra, featuring Dee Dee Bridgewater. Given that we only caught a snippet of Rebirth Brass Band in the afternoon, this was the largest dose of capital-J Jazz we ingested Sunday. The orchestra checked a lot of the boxes I had marked before the concert: an old-fashioned big band, line breaks for each member of the trumpet section to drop in a 16-bar solo, a member of the trumpet section jumping into an obligatory impression of Louis Armstrong’s growl of “You’ve Got a Friend in Me.” Then there was Mr. Mayfield, conducting on the sidelines for a good portion before submitting some dizzying solos of his own on an absolute peach of a trumpet, the mouthpiece crafted right into the bulk of the horn in a way belying the fact that, yeah, this guy’s playing for keeps. And of course, the esteemable Ms. Bridgewater, tirelessly skoo-be-dee-bopping her way through tune after tune, wearing shades and a fedora because, honestly, why the hell not? The only question that I was left with was why these folks, likely in top percentile of the top percentile of the top percentile in terms of what they do, were playing in the 1:30 time slot, essentially the opener for the opener for the main act of Lady Gaga and an 88-year old.

But I didn’t watch whatever Stefani Germanette and Tony Bennett (the non-UVA head coach) got into. I had something more important to do: I had to join the Parrotheads.

There’s nothing that needs to be said about Jimmy Buffett’s music, other than it’s what we deserve for letting people from Mobile, Alabama be creative. There’s not much that needs to be said about the elaborate construction of his persona (t-shirt, shorts, barefoot on stage), his forced on-stage banter or his sense of humor (maybe I’m old-fashioned, but it might be a little too early for jokes about hurricanes in New Orleans). There’s not even much to cover about those folks who really, really, un-ironically enjoy his music–South Park’s Eric Cartman was pretty comprehensive with the list of “frat boys and alcoholic chicks from the south,” although I may add to that list (see succeeding pictures) folks in the immediate surrounding area with generally high levels of inertia. The one thing that does need to be said, though, is that these people really, really, un-ironically enjoy his music. 



Just to recap, in order we have:

  • A woman wearing–what I hope to Christ is–a “Cheeseburger in Paradise” hat
  • Two “Parrotheads” (lolz)
  • The general kumbaya nature of the Jimmy Buffett experience, garnered by the ringleader wearing the LandShark (Buffett’s personal brew-like concoction) “hat”
  • Inertia

But while we were taking in the innocuous offerings on the main stage, we were inundated with the bleatings and core-shaking beats of a sub-species so invasive that it can only be described as Mr. Worldwide. So we gathered our pillaged selfs and began the necessary migration, the tradition (that is unlike any other) of hating oneself and listening to Pitbull.

Imagine that tomorrow aliens came to Earth, and you were tasked with describing Pitbull to them. If you spoke chronologically, you’d say that he was a wannabe “hard” rapper, whose ability and street cred both fell shy of the mark. He reinvented himself, you’d say with a tinge of admiration and subsequent self-loathing, as a ubiquitous party presence and multinational brand icon, his songs popping up, Whack-a-Mole style, with such frequency that you’d assume every DJ was receiving some sort of kickback from him.

Now you’d have to ask the aliens how much time they have, because the concept of a Pitbull song takes some time to explain. Because it’s not that Pitbull makes music–he gloms onto existing music. He rides along on the talent of other musicians like a bareheaded barnacle, adding drum beats where no drum beats have gone before, sidling right up to the prim, mouselike figure of Copyright Law and offering to buy her a couple drinks and have a little fun. His additions in and of themselves are at best inconsequential, invariably coming from a school of thought that every song needs a club mix. He raps, kind of, on these tracks, bringing together the creativity of an AAAA rhyme scheme and the insights that only lines like “running through the game like a running back” can bring. This all happens simultaneous to his manufacturing of a stage presence that boasts about, in no particular order, “hustle,” “sacrifice,” and “hard work,” which suggests that Pitbull’s raps require a modicum of actual effort, such as revising the first draft version of “runner” (when he realized the syllabic content wasn’t quite there) to the aforementioned “running back.”

He is a scourge with no reason to exist, and he is insanely popular.

There are things you see at a Pitbull show you can’t forget, like the bevy of impressionable young girls wearing 305 shirts (Pitbull’s area code that he’s quick to remind folks of). Or like the middle-aged women dancing sans shirts amidst the crowd. Or like the fact that Pitbull at this point isn’t even trying to act as if he’s anything but a plagiarist, simply playing songs he has never even laid a finger on and dancing on stage, sweating and grinning like even he can’t believe people enjoy this.

Because they do. They absolutely enjoy it. I’d be lying to say that even I, skeptic that I am, enjoyed it at times. And it was at one of those times when I realized that although what Pitbull “plays” is a monolithic crater from the actual genre, it makes sense that he was at Jazz Fest.

Pitbull is tourist New Orleans. He’s not just the idea of drinking a daiquiri, but he’s the freedom of drinking a daiquiri in a to-go cup as you todder along Bourbon Street. He’s the realization that your best culinary options are either a hot dog or a crawfish and nowhere in-between. He’s your base instincts, a walking “Up For Whatever” billboard that simply is what folks want from a weekend in the Big Easy.

I’d like to think the real New Orleans is Irvin Mayfield, though. And Dee Dee Bridgewater and Adonis Rose and the whole N.O. Jazz Orchestra. They’re the slow curation of talent, the persistence in the face of the not-great circumstances of the city. The understanding that things won’t go right all the time, so we don’t need to play music that tells us they will. The belief that we can create, on the fly, as need be, if and when these things arise.

Realistically, New Orleans probably falls somewhere between these two versions, somewhere between the yin and the yang. But, man, it’s crazy to see the two of them coexist sometimes.

You could even say it smells a little funny.


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