There’s an orchestra that happens before the first Jazz Fest artist takes the stage

NEW ORLEANS - Tague Richardson has a passion for Jazz Fest, but you're not likely to see him relaxing on a picnic blanket in front of one of the main stages. But behind the scenes before the crowds gather, he's front and center. You could call him the conductor of the pre-fest frenzy.

"We probably have 2,500 to 3,000 people actually working on the grounds before we even open the gates," says Richardson, who calls himself the "bellwether" for Jazz Fest spirit.

"I can't lose it," he says, as each part of the fest comes together to create a cornucopia of music, food, crafts and culture.

"That's my goal, to maintain a calm site."

He's been keeping his cool as Site Director for the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival for more than four decades and says he's "never not in awe" of what they accomplish every year, setting the stage for one of New Orleans' signature celebrations during the last weekend of April and the first weekend of May.

Just days before the music starts, there's a cacophony of construction, as every detail is put in place for a successful festival.

Cuba is in the spotlight this year, as the focus of the Cultural Exchange Pavilion. CEP Coordinator Valerie Guillet is thrilled to see the island's culture showcased at Jazz Fest 2017. She says the relaxed restrictions on U.S. travel to Cuba made it the perfect choice.

"The cultural gumbo is here, and it's there. African, Native American, European, this unique mix that we have here is there too."

Visitors to the Pavilion will get an authentic glimpse of Cuban culture: cigars, instruments and artwork. And there's a game changer this year: for the first time, the CEP stage is listed in the Jazz Fest Cubes.

"We've been kind of the best kept secret of the festival for a few years, but now the secret is out. This is a real stage with full-on programming," says Guillet.