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New Orleans Jazz Fest: Meet the man who transforms a grassy field into city's biggest festival

There was a moment at Jazz Fest about 10 years ago when Tague Richardson broke down and cried. It was dark, the festival was over for the year and the last fans had already walked out the front gates of the New Orleans Fair Grounds.

Richardson, the site director for the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival presented by Shell, had thrown back a celebratory drink with his crew and hopped in his golf cart. He took a spin over to what he calls Stage 3 and what everyone else knows as the Acura Stage. Sitting there, he saw dozens of people methodically tearing the stage apart, rolling up coils of wires, shifting things to and fro, and he just started weeping. 

“They were taking out the sound, the lights, they were just — everybody, everywhere, doing stuff,” Richardson said. “I just melted down. I just started crying like a baby. It was so overwhelming to realize, from the ground, up, what it becomes.” 

That late night shift at the festival was hardly Richardson’s first. He’s worked with Jazz Fest for 42 years as of 2016, and he reckons he’s spent about five of those at the Fair Grounds. 

“I’m really passionate about Jazz Fest. I feel like it’s a gift to the world. I really do,” he said. “I inspire that in other people, and what we gain from our corps is so much bigger than any of us. … We all realize that, some kind of way. It really is a labor of love.” 

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Richardson and his team of about 100 crew members mill about a parking lot at the Fair Grounds, just off Gentilly Boulevard. It’s a few minutes after 9 a.m. on March 28, and they’re greeting each other with hugs and kisses as they wait for the call. Richardson taps his fingers against the phone in his hand, his eyes glancing around at the crew and the myriad boxes, golf carts, trailers and piles and piles of plywood. 

Tague Richardson, left, who manages the build-up and take-down of Jazz Fest instructs his team on the first days of prep work for the New Orleans Jazz Heritage Festival on Tuesday, March 29, 2016 in New Orleans. (Photo by Chris Granger, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune)
 

The gear that will slowly become Jazz Fest over the next six weeks lies in wait, unaware of the itch in Richardson’s fingers to get started. 

“It’s kind of a big slingshot,” Richardson explained between hellos to returning workers and questions shot his way from every direction. “We get everything loaded up over here, tractor trailers all full and ready and all tuned in for what they have to do. The thing of it is, when we come out here, there’s nothing.”

Nothing. Absolutely nothing. 

Richardson thinks over how his teams will build a plumbing system, electrical system, install art work and create stages complete with lighting rigs and working sound systems. He thinks of how every single tent at the Fair Grounds requires a permit from the city. He thinks of the brand new bleachers that Festival Productions Inc. CEO Quint Davis has tasked the team to build at two stages. 

But first, they’ll have to build the road to even get the trucks of gear out there.

Richardson’s team gets the call, which is the official word that the horses are out and Jazz Fest is in, and it’s back to work. Richardson’s crew starts walking the track and the eager hum of engines kicking into gear hits the air. In one breath, the Fair Grounds transformed from the place where racehorses kick their hooves in an undying effort to get around the bend and into a place of live music and good food. 

It took about a week to get all that gear piled up in the parking lot, and it’ll take about another week to get it all into place within the racetrack and Barn 11, where Richardson sets up a kind of Jazz Fest utility general store for anything and everything the builders and tradespeople will need throughout the next two months. 

Then there’s everything he doesn’t know. 

“We’ve got the knowns down,” Richardson said. “Everybody just really knows where they’re doing. … It’s really weather. It’s outside forces that are more troublesome to us because I think we’re all really confident in what we do.” 

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Just a week later, the weather is already proving tricky. A thunderstorm looks to be rolling in from the northwest and Richardson walks the line of what will eventually be the Kids’ Tent perimeter. He’s got a posse, too, following in his footsteps, carrying carry a birds’ eye view of the festival from a previous year and toting along a stack of multicolored flags to mark the edges of things. There’s also a giant bag of ant killer. 

They follow in other ways, too, making mental notes as the younger men are the heirs apparent for future festival productions, said drink liaison Clifton Jones. Jones worked alongside Richardson on producing Jazz Fest for 38 years, and now his son, Morgan Jones, is learning the ropes. 

“We can’t do this forever,” Jones notes pragmatically as he tips a bag of poisonous pellets onto a small black anthill. 

A big thunderstorm looks to be rolling in, but no one pays it any mind as Food Area I and Food Area II begin to take shape. The skeletons of scaffolding rise quickly as each beam gets slotted into place.

“Watch out,” calls one worker to the onlookers below. “Those don’t stay in place much until we get this other part fixed in.” 

Don McLean sings “American Pie” from a speaker tucked into a golf cart as the sky gives way and fat raindrops land on the grass. With a metallic ka-shink, another pole drops into place. 

“Jazz Fest is all systems,” explained Quint Davis, the CEO of Festival Productions Inc., which co-produces the event every year. “We have brilliant people who created incredible systems, and they’ve all grown so dramatically because it’s gotten bigger. … (Richardson) designs it, builds it. He runs it.”

Running the whole thing in 2016, though, comes with one particular challenge. The dates of Jazz Fest, traditionally the last weekend of April and the first weekend of May, have squeezed deadlines as the festival wraps up on May 1. 

But Richardson isn’t worried. He doesn’t seem the type to be bothered by that kind of thing anyway.  

“When people come, they don’t see anything except the fronts of things,” he said. “All they see is the little body behind the counter or behind the sign, but the layers of stuff that has to happen between when we start and those people get here is beyond me, actually. I realize it’s my job to really set the foundation, and then everybody else comes in here and grows their plants.”

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