Tales of a Backyard Superchill
A group of Jazz Fest regulars help keep the festival’s spirit alive during the pandemic.
I attended my first Jazz Fest in 2005, four months before Katrina. I was 27, and it was the best of times. It marked the beginning of our New Orleans education. Our first day at the fairgrounds was the stuff of legend—the music, the food, the sounds, the sights, the colors, the flags, the people all combined to produce the excellence that is Jazz Fest. In the midst of our collective awe, shock, glory and joy, I looked at my friends and said, “This isn’t chill, this is ‘superchill.’” And, just like that, the Superchill group was born. We have proudly trekked to every Jazz Fest since.
Over the next 15 years of festing, our Superchill crew expanded into a group of lifelong friends who all love Jazz Fest. We’ve gotten married, had kids, moved homes and changed jobs, yet Jazz Fest remains our single constant. From year to year, we grew and got “festier.” We made Superchill shirts, wristbands, lighters, slippers, bandanas and brochures. We created a big flag with “Superchill” inscribed on it. I once had a plane fly over Jazz Fest that advertised “Superchill”—just because. Music festivals are the greatest of times, and Jazz Fest is the greatest of festivals. It is our annual chance to let loose, connect with our friends, listen to the finest music, eat the greatest foods and be utterly Superchill. Jazz Fest provides the highest and most consistent degree of joy, so it should be treated as such.
I ended up getting married to my wife, Stacy in New Orleans. We named our dog after our favorite Jazz Fest menu item, Mangochillcrawfishmonica, or “Mango” for short. We schedule everything around Jazz Fest; we even did our best to plan the birth of our three children around it. For our crew, missing Jazz Fest is not an option—Jazz Fest inspires, invigorates and recalibrates us. It is a necessity in its truest form.
In early 2020, we were gearing up for our New Orleans annual pilgrimage. Then COVID happened. For the first couple of weeks, we thought it would only last a couple of weeks. We still planned on going to Jazz Fest right up until it was officially canceled.
Then, after the shutdown happened, the reality of COVID began to unfold. Working from home was a nice break, until it wasn’t. Zoom get-togethers with friends were fun, until they weren’t. Homeschooling the kids never felt quite right. And while music typically provides a much needed relief from life’s everyday trials and tribulations, we were now locked down with no shows on the horizon. We couldn’t see anyone, we couldn’t eat anywhere, we couldn’t do anything. Just like that, things became very “un-Superchill.”
With no music or Jazz Fest in sight—and after having our kids’ third Zoom birthday party of the weekend—my wife Stacy looked at me and said, “Do you think we could have a Zoom Jazz Fest?” And just like that, the 2020 Superchill Zoom Jazz Fest was born.
Robert Walter’s funk and flair have been foundational elements of the Superchill group since its inception. We congregate wherever he plays at Jazz Fest so he was our first call. As it turned out, he hadn’t played any Zoom shows yet and was excited about participating. Consequently, I started calling and Facebook messaging some of our other Jazz Fest musical heroes, asking if they wanted to play the Zoom fest. They were all glad to chat, expressing what a tough time it had been for them as well.
Robert Walter, Cochemea “Cheme” Gastelum, Eric Krasno and Joe Ashlar all agreed to participate. As word continued to spread, more friends of friends jumped on the virtual party bandwagon. We figured that we might as well add another day, so we added Jazz Fest mainstays like Big Chief Donald Harrison, George Porter Jr., Ivan Neville, John Medeski, Big Sam’s Funky Nation, Papa Mali, Joe Krown and Marcus Rezak. This fleeting idea turned into 150 Jazz Festers joining us on Zoom for 12 sets over a three-day period; we ended up hosting day shows, night shows and surprise shows.
This wasn’t some Facebook livestream whereby the entertainer played a song, finished and then looked blankly into the internet hoping it was well received. This was an interactive, collaborative Zoom show; the musicians could see us, feel us and actually hear our applause after each song. The performers were physically moved by the uproarious cheering. Papa Mali shed a tear, sharing that he “hadn’t heard a crowd in this way” in too long.
The audience ended up spanning the U.S., five countries and three continents Participants talked over Zoom about the food that they had made and showed off their best fest attire in order to make this Jazz Fest experience feel “as real as it could be.” The music was tremendous. The musicians shared some deeply personal stories and the fact everyone was at home actually made the experience feel more intimate. We were all sharing this Jazz Fest experience together, while being physically far apart. For a weekend, COVID was on pause, and Jazz Fest was happening.
After the election, COVID got worse and Jazz Fest was postponed, yet again. We did a couple of Superchill Saturday Nights over Zoom and, once again, all of the musicians expressed their appreciation for our love and support. After Donald Harrison’s New Year’s set, Stacy suggested, “Maybe we could have a Jazz Fest in our backyard?”
And so, on July 24, 2021, we hosted our own Jazz Fest in our backyard, dubbing it the Backyard Superchill.
While music is clearly an essential element of Jazz Fest, food is equally important to the experience. When you go to Jazz Fest and taste that first bite of one of your favorite eateries, you devour it right at the stand. You don’t share; you don’t care if it drips on your face. The Jazz Fest gods were shining down on us when we were introduced to Mila and Girl and the Kitchen catering. Mila—who was a chef in New Orleans but is now based near us in Chicago—put together a truly fest-worthy menu featuring Crawfish Monica, Cochon de Laits, Fried Shrimp Po-boys, Smoked Duck Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwiches, Shrimp and Grits, White Chocolate Bread Pudding, Mangochills and other classic New Orleans dishes. She helped create the true essence of Superchillness.
At Jazz Fest, whether it’s taking those first steps into the fairgrounds, or that initial stroll down Frenchmen Street, there is an unmatched feeling of joy and never-ending splendor. All of our music-loving friends missed the anticipation of seeing a live show.
We were lucky enough to put together the Superchill Allstars: Robert Walter, Mike Clark, Will Bernard, Fred Wesley and Donald Harrison. As a cherry on top, we were able to add Grammy nominated Blues Hall of Famer, and Chicago Blues legend, John Primer as our opening act. Giddiness levels were off the chart.
Primer took the stage and rocked the crowd with “Caledonia,” “Got My Mojo Workin’,” “Rhinestone Cowboy” and many of his other great blues riffs. And, while the food and drinks continued to flow, the Superchill Allstars took over.
Over the next three hours, the Allstars show exceeded even our wildest expectations. The music was fluid, funky and played to the highest caliber. It filled our backyard, in between the kids swing set and a blow-up pool, with a unicorn floaty bopping all night long. We had the grass under our feet, while our Jazz Fest heroes offered a show for the ages. A rollicking “Kicking Up Dust,” followed by Fred Wesley’s iconic “House Party,” felt like the perfect soundtrack to the backyard setting. “Iko Iko,” “Watermelon Man,” “Hey Pocky Way,” “Inside Straight,” “Aquafresh” and other Jazz Fest classics filled the backyard with a funky rhythm beneath the stars.
At some point, while the band was performing at optimum levels, I glanced up only to realize that Robert was no longer on keys, and that the sound guy, Neal, had taken over on the Hammond B-3. Neal, the sound guy, turned out to be Neal Francis. (Who knew he had played Red Rocks the week before and was set to play at Tipitina’s in October?) But, Neal certainly made his presence known, trading solos with Donald Harrison and Mike Clark until they flawlessly segued into Cannonball Adderley’s “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy.”
At Jazz Fest, surprise sit-ins are always a highlight. Maybe it’s because the band is feeling the energy of the new guy. Maybe it’s because the new guy is so thrilled to be playing alongside other masters. Whatever the reason, Neal Francis’ sit-in with the Superchill Allstars was exactly that—a moment of pure transcendence.
Amidst all the glory, shock and awe of everything that was happening, and in the crossfire of the food, music and our friends, it was abundantly clear that there was no other place to be. The band was supposed to play until 11 p.m., but, being the funky legends that they are, they ended up stretching things until midnight. I woke up the next morning, and my wife and I chatted in festive disbelief about what had transpired in our backyard. We all knew that we had to host another Backyard Superchill one day. Much like my first Jazz Fest, I will look forward to the next time we get to see live music again, whether it’s in my backyard or somewhere else that’s categorically Superchill.
Jeremy Geller is a Chicago-based lawyer and music fan.