What measures would it take to make Jazz Fest safer, and would you want them?

elton john photo by erika goldring
Elton John on Jazz Fest's Acura Stage, by Erika Goldring

Today in The New Orleans Advocate, Mark Guarino and Jaquetta White wrote about the crowd’s experience Saturday, and in it, they reported:

In a statement to The Advocate on Sunday, festival producers said they did institute a standing-room-only policy on the track for Acura Stage performances this year, but “as with any new policy, it sometimes takes a couple of years to achieve full compliance.”

Did anybody know that? Doesn’t a change that significant seem like something that would have been news? Would compliance have been easier to get if people would have known the policy before they brought their chairs in? Wouldn’t it have made sense to remind people of this policy through the media after The Who’s set on the first weekend? No outlet, My Spilt Milk included, can get enough Jazz Fest stories while the festival is on, and television, print, and online media would all have run a story with the impact that banning chairs on the track would have. But I first heard of this change when I read the story this morning.   

That said, I suspect that the festival was no more unsafe at Elton/Ed/TI numbers than Keith Urban/Wilco numbers. In either case, if something happened that required medical or security attention in the middle of an Acura Stage or Gentilly Stage crowd, help would be slow to arrive. The festival is certainly safer with smaller numbers, but I doubt it’s much safer until you get down to second Thursday numbers.

The uncomfortable truth is that Jazz Fest—like most festivals, I expect—depends on things going right. On the first Friday, Orleans Parish was under a tornado watch starting at 4:56 p.m., but nothing was done because really, what could be done? Closing and evacuating Jazz Fest would have still left tens of thousands of people at risk as they tried to get off the Fair Grounds. Instead, festival officials monitored the weather, made the best decisions they could, and counted on the fact that many—perhaps most—tornado watches pass without tornadoes forming. It might seem like erriing on the side of safety is the best plan, but Wilco and Keith Urban fans would have been furious if their sets never started but the tornadoes never materialized.

For me, a more convincing argument to cap ticket sales is that Jazz Fest isn’t Jazz Fest with those numbers. The Acura Stage became an Elton John concert with Jerry Lee Lewis, Davell Crawford’s Fats Domino tribute, and Marcia Ball opening. Bouncing from stage to stage of Louisiana music before settling down for Elton John became impractical, nor could people enjoy Louisiana food. The activities that give Jazz Fest personality are prohibitively difficult when the crowds are at that level.