For seven days spread across two weekends — beginning on the last Friday in April — nearly 400,000 people attend the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival (informally known as Jazz Fest), an annual event that features hundreds of acts, representing a wide range of music on a dozen stages. Jazz Fest is one of New Orleans’ signature cultural products, and for two weeks the entire city is filled with related events, including several smaller music festivals around the city and high-profile performers every night at the city’s bars and clubs. With so much happening at once, it can be overwhelming. Below is a guide to getting the most out of your visit.
Despite the name, Jazz Fest showcases a wide range of musical styles, from pop and punk to hip-hop, blues, gospel folk and many different kinds of jazz. The festival is a great place to catch local acts from Rebirth Brass Band, Dr. John and Glen David Andrews to Big Freedia and Mystikal, as well as Mardi Gras Indian performances, second line parades and children’s programming.
The festival always delivers a roster of big names, which this year includes musicians from Lauryn Hill to Arcade Fire, John Mellencamp to John Legend and Tom Jones to Lupe Fiasco. But any Jazz Fest veteran will tell you the greatest joys are to be had in the discovery of less well-known acts on the smaller stages.
The Gospel Tent features breathtaking performances in a more intimate setting, while the Allison Miner Music Heritage Stage often has unguarded interviews with a range of musicians and cultural figures. This year’s festival also features a focus on Haitian music, shining a light on the shared cultural heritage of New Orleans and Haiti.
There’s also much more than music on which to feast. Jazz Fest features the best food New Orleans has to offer, which likely means the best food of any music festival in the world. In addition, the best of the city’s artists and craftspeople spend the year looking forward to booking a stand at the fest, and the competition for a spot is high. If you want to support the city’s grassroots culture workers, be sure to spend some money here.
When you visit, put some planning into how you’ll get around. Alternative transportation is always a good idea, because every night after the last performance, thousands of people wait in a line several blocks long for taxis, and parking is scarce for miles in every direction. New Orleans is a small city — if you rent a bike, you can easily get to most neighborhoods.