What began in 1969 as a small gathering in Congo Square to celebrate the music of New Orleans now ranks as one of the best attended, most respected, and most musically comprehensive festivals in the world. Although people call it Jazz Fest (or just “Fest”) the full name is New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival Presented by Shell. The “Heritage” part is broadly interpreted, and the “Jazz” part hardly represents the scope of the musical fare. Each of the 12 stages showcases a musical genre or three.
Jazz Fest encompasses everything the city has to offer, in terms of music, food, and culture. That, and it’s a hell of a party. In 2006, after Shell Oil sponsored Jazz Fest’s uncertain return after Katrina, Bruce Springsteen’s triumphant, emotionally stunning set sealed its eternal resurrection. Such musical and emotional epiphanies abound at Fest. While headliners like Arcade Fire, Pearl Jam, Stevie Wonder, Van Morrison, Dave Matthews, My Morning Jacket, Maroon 5, The Roots, and Christina Aguillera can draw huge crowds, serious Festers savor the lesser-known acts. They range from the avant-garde to old-time Delta bluesmen, from African artists making rare U.S. appearances to bohemian street folkies, and from the top zydeco players to gospel mass choirs. And, of course, jazz in its many forms.
Filling the infield of the Fair Grounds horse-racing track up near City Park, the festival covers two long weekends, the last in April and the first in May (for 2018, that’s Apr 27–30 and May 3-6; in 2019 April 26-28 and May 2-5). It’s set up about as well as a large event can be. When the crowds get thick, though—especially the popular second Saturday—it can be tough to move around, more so if the grounds are muddy from rain. Lines at the most popular of the several dozen food booths can be frighteningly long, but it’s all quite civil and most move quickly (and they’re invariably worth the wait).Attending Jazz Fest means making some tough decisions. Hotels, restaurants, and flights fill up months (if not a year) in advance, but the schedule is not announced until a couple of months before the event. So reserving travel requires a leap of faith in the talent bookings. But truth be told, just about every day at Jazz Fest is a good day regardless of who is playing (avoid the dilemma by going for both weekends). The Thursday before the second weekend traditionally has more locals, on stage and in the audience, and smaller crowds. It’s a great time to hit the most popular food booths and check out the crafts areas.
Jazz Fest Pointers
“It’s a marathon, not a sprint” as the saying goes. With music in every direction, you can plot out your day or just wander from stage to stage, catching a few songs by various acts—some of the best Jazz Fest experiences come from stumbling across an undiscovered musical gem. Or you can set up camp at one stage—from the big ones with famous headliners to the gospel tent, where musical miracles are pretty much a given. It’s akin to sit-down dining versus a buffet: Both have advantages.
At your hotel or as you’re walking to Fest, grab a free Offbeat magazine (they’re dispensed or handed out everywhere). You’ll need the schedule “grids” and performer descriptions. Also download the Jazz Fest and Offbeat apps. For $5, the official Fest program also has the schedule, plus food coupons (available on-site).
On a typical Jazz Fest day, you’ll arrive sometime after the gates open at 11am and stay until you are pooped or they close at 7pm. The whole thing usually runs as efficiently as a Swiss train. After you leave, get some dinner and hit the clubs. Every club in the city has top-notch bookings—of note are Piano Night at the House of Blues; Tipitina’s’ Instruments a Comin’ benefit; the jam-heavy shows produced by Fiyawerx (fiyawerx.com); and NolaFunk (nolafunk.com). Alternately, sleep.
The excellent nonmusical aspects of Jazz Fest are plentiful. Local craftspeople and juried artisans fill a sizable area with artwork and products for show, for demonstration, or for purchase. Most vendors will pack and ship goods to your home (and there’s a U.S. Post Office on site, too).
And as always in New Orleans, there is food. There are local standbys—not burgers and dogs but red beans and rice, jambalaya, étouffée, and gumbo. More interesting choices include cochon de lait (a mouthwatering roast-pig sandwich), a fried soft-shell crab po’ boy, quail and pheasant gumbo, and all manner of oyster and crawfish. And that’s not even discussing the various ethnic or vegetarian dishes available, or the desserts . . . oooh, the desserts. The terrific kids’ area has PB&J, mac and cheese, and other easy-pleasing faves. Try at least one new thing daily, and also share, so you can sample more variety and decide which booths to revisit. Tip #1: There’s copious cold beer, but the lines can get long. Smaller stages = shorter lines, and it’s often worth it to trek there. Tip #2: Many hours of sun + many beers = premature crash. Pace thyself, grasshopper.
Experienced Fest-goers also know to duck into the air-conditioned Grandstand for art and folklore exhibits, cooking demonstrations, and real bathrooms. The upstairs Heritage Stage features interviews and short performances by some of the top acts in a much more intimate setting. It’s highly recommended.
Wear and bring as little as possible; you’ll want to be comfy and unencumbered. Do bring sun protection, something that tells time, a poncho if rain is forecast (they sell them there, but at twice what you’ll pay at a souvenir store), and moola (cash only for food; credit okay for crafts; there are ATMs but you’ll want to be doing anything other than waiting in line for one). Wear comfy, supportive, well-broken-in shoes that you’re willing to sacrifice to dirt or mud. If serious rain or mud is forecast, waterproof boots are your saviors (needless to say, this is not one of those fashion forward fests). Flip flops + mud = fail. No beverages (apart from 1 liter of unopened water) are allowed in.
There are seats in the tented stages. Outside, all stages have a small VIP pit area; behind that is a standing-only (no-chair) zone. Generally, people stand or sit on the ground, a blanket, or a folding chair where allowed. When left vacant, these become annoying space hogs. Kind Fest-goers invite others to use their space when they leave temporarily, but don’t be shy about asking. VIPs also get covered, raised seating areas, and in 2016 open-air bleacher seating was added for the regular folk at the two largest stages – a welcome enhancement.
Tickets -- Purchase tickets when they go on sale in late fall or early winter, when they are the cheapest. Tickets are available through Ticketmaster (www.ticketmaster.com; [tel] 800/745-3000; add their ample fees to the rates shown here) or at the gate. Daily admission for adults in 2015 was $70 in advance, $80 at the gate, and $5 for children (ages 2–10, at gate only; kids must be present). There are also various VIP packages with a range of swanky seating, access, and amenities, topping out at $1,400 for one weekend (and they do sell out). Another option is to purchase a Brass Pass from WWOZ, the local and much loved jazz radio station. Priced at $575 for 2017, the pass is transferrable, allows you in and out of the Fairgrounds privledges and comes with a cushy private ‘OZ tent where water, iced coffee and fruit is served. A portion of the proceeds go directly to the station and include a one-year membership to ‘OZ. For more information, contact New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival (www.nojazzfest.com; [tel] 504/410-4100).
Parking & Transportation -- The only official parking at the Fair Grounds is for people with disabilities, at $50 a day, first-come, first-served. Email email@example.com or contact [tel] 504/410-6104. Enterprising neighbors including schools and businesses provide parking in their driveways or lots at $25 a day and ups. Most people take public transportation or a shuttle. The Regional Transit Authority operates bus routes to the Fair Grounds from various pickup points. For schedules, contact [tel] 504/248-3900 (www.norta.com). Taxis, though busy, charge a special-event rate of $7 per person or the meter reading if it’s higher. Uber and Lyft are also in operation; expect surge rates, but if split it may even out. Gray Line’s Jazz Fest Express (www.graylineneworleans.com; [tel] 800/233-2628 or 504/569-1401) operates shuttles from the steamboat Natchez dock in the French Quarter; the Sheraton at 500 Canal Street; and City Park. It’s $20 round-trip and you must have a Jazz Fest ticket to ride (purchase shuttle tickets with your Ticketmaster ticket order). Note: The Canal Street streetcar line will be packed, but it’s an option from the Quarter. Take the cars destined for “City Park”—not those to “Cemeteries.” Fare is $1.25 or use your multi-day Jazzy Pass. All of these options have designated drop-off and pick-up locations outside the Fair Grounds.
Package Deals -- Check the “Travel” section of the Jazz Fest website for package deals that include airfare, hotel accommodations in New Orleans, Fest tickets, and shuttle tickets to get you there. If you’re flying to New Orleans specifically for the festival, visit www.nojazzfest.com to get a Jazz Fest promotional code from a list of airlines that offer special Fest fares. Festival Tours International (www.gumbopages.com/festivaltours; [tel] 310/454-4080) offers a tour that includes accommodations and tickets for Jazz Fest, plus a midweek visit to Cajun Country for unique personal encounters with leading local musicians. A crawfish boil with the Savoys (reigning first family of Cajun music) and a barbecue at zydeco master Geno Delafose’s ranch are regular outings. The company has been around since 1982. Their “non-tours,” which are filled with music lovers, are positively stellar.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.