School board member on 44-year streak of attendance
When the schedule for this year’s Jazz Fest was released earlier this week, one can be almost certain Ellis Alexander cast a keen eye upon it and began making plans.
One might describe Alexander, the Hahnville resident and St. Charles Parish School Board member, as an aficionado of the annual New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. Alexander has attended Jazz Fest for 44 straight years after attending it for the first time in 1971, which was the event’s third year of existence.
“I was going to Loyola University at the time and they had an event in the spring where this group was playing,” Alexander recalled. “One of them was a guy named Roosevelt Sykes who they called Honeydipper. He told us, ‘hey, we’re playing at the Jazz Festival tomorrow, you guys should come check us out.’”
Alexander and three of his friends took the musician up on that offer, and it proved a fortuitous decision.
“We got to the Fair Grounds and I said, ‘Oh man, I like this,’” he said. “I’ve been going back ever since.”
He said he loves to listen and appreciate all of the different bands — and tries to do so as literally as possible, something that he admits often has him flying solo at the event.
“Oh, I’m in orbit when I’m out there,” Alexander said. “I go to all of the stages when I’m out there … I try to see as many acts as I can. I may stay as little as five minutes, or sometimes I’ll watch a whole set. If two bands are playing at same time, I want to catch some of both of them. I can’t go to Jazz Fest with anybody because I move around too much. I wouldn’t want to hinder their enjoyment of it all.”
One particular performance he says he’ll never forget happened in the mid-1970s, when Stevie Wonder took the stage to play with The Meters.
“I believe it was 1975. He had the hit, Very Superstitious,” Alexander said. “He was playing at a concert nearby … he came out there by himself and the Meters were playing, and man, he made his way up on the stage, got behind the drums and played his song with those guys. That’s one I’ll never forget.”
A Jazz Fest regular, he’s grown a great appreciation for New Orleans singer and guitarist Walter “Wolfman” Washington.
“He’s a great musician and soulful singer,” Alexander said. “I never get tired of his music. He always delivers.”
Alexander said he never really thought about how many years he’d gone consecutively until the last few years, when he heard others noting how many times they’d been to the event.
“Some people would say, ‘I’ve been here 10 times,’ and I’d think to myself, man, I’ve been to just about every single one,” he said. “All but the first two. It kind of sunk in then. Not many people have been there more than I have.”
He has even met more than a few of the event’s performers. Alexander has taken numerous pictures at Jazz Fest over the years, and he often brings those photos with him to the festival. Sometimes he gets one signed — other times, he makes the artist a deal of sorts.
“I’ll bring two 8x10s and say, if you sign one, you can keep the other,” he said. “Sometimes, I’ll have pictures of their performance from back in the 70s and 80s.”
It doesn’t always go according to plan, he admits.
“Last year, Herbie Hancock was playing. I had a picture I took of him back in 1973 at the Municipal Auditorium,” Alexander said. “I told people I wanted to get him to autograph the pictures, and they laughed at me. ‘You won’t get anywhere near him.’”
But after some maneuvering, he did just that, and offered Hancock his choice of a photo if he’d sign the others. The legendary musician took a liking to one and agreed.
“I asked if I could get a picture with him, and handed my camera to someone,” Alexander said. “We did, then I got the pictures … and I accidentally walked away with all of them, including the one he wanted.”
He sought the help of a nearby security guard—but the guard recognized Alexander as the same person who he had appealed to earlier to allow him to speak with Hancock.
“He told me, ‘Mister, if you ask me one more thing, I’m gonna put you off the grounds,’” Alexander chuckled. “They did direct me to his publicist, and I explained it to her. I don’t know if he ever got the picture. I hope so.”
Whether he’s able to leave with a few signed mementos or not, Alexander says you can’t beat the experience of attending Jazz Fest.
“It’s a great deal,” he said. “For the money that you pay, the amount of talent you can witness and listen to, it’s out of this world.”