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.
Be sure to stop by Bayou Road, just a few blocks away, to catch the street performers at local record store Domino Sound, and a range of events and great conversation at a neighborhood gathering spot called the Community Book Center. A few blocks from Bayou Road, a Krishna temple offers free vegetarian food every night of the fest. Also not far away from the Fair Grounds, but still off the regular tourist route, are Bullet's, a bar noted for featuring local legend Kermit Ruffins on Tuesday nights; and JuJu Bag, a café with regular performances on weekends.
A visitor can have a vacation filled wall to wall with music and entertainment without ever actually entering the festival grounds. Many people choose to spend their time watching street musicians all day and checking out the local nightlife until late. Remember: Bars and clubs in New Orleans never have to close, and on streets like Frenchmen and St. Bernard, the music is often still going strong at 4 a.m.
There are also other nearby music festivals competing for your attention. The best of these is the Festival International de Louisiane, in nearby Lafayette, La. This free festival dedicated to francophone music and culture takes over the entire downtown of the Cajun capital city on Jazz Fest's opening weekend.
As you walk down the streets of Lafayette, you may overhear an animated conversation in French between a group of musicians from Haiti, Senegal, Vietnam and the Louisiana swamps. Closer to home is Chaz Fest, a backyard festival started by a group of New Orleans musicians who were frustrated that not enough local talent was booked at Jazz Fest. While it was started as a lark, Chaz Fest has become a beloved tradition in the city.
Too many tourists make the mistake of spending all their time in the French Quarter and not exploring the city. To really enjoy a visit to New Orleans, consider having a picnic by the Mississippi River, then taking a ferry across the river to the West Bank neighborhood. From there, you can engage in political conversation at BlackStar Books and Caffe or get some dinner at Tan Dinh, one of the many restaurants run by members of the city's large Vietnamese community.
Or take a drive out to the New Orleans East neighborhood for a visit to Big Momma's Chicken and Waffles, owned by one of the founders of the pioneering New Orleans rap label Take Fo' Records. If you want to connect with the city's Mardi Gras Indian culture while visiting the Lower Ninth Ward neighborhood, consider taking a trip to the House of Dance & Feathers, a museum and cultural center built in that still-struggling community.
A short walk from the French Quarter is the historic Tremé neighborhood. While it is mostly residential, there are a couple of spots to catch live music here, including the Candlelight Lounge, which features the Treme Brass Band every Wednesday night, and an audience that mixes neighborhood locals with visiting celebrities like Mos Def and Tim Robbins.
According to the most recent census, New Orleans has a population of 110,000 fewer people since Hurricane Katrina. Perhaps even more alarming, the city has lost more than 300,000 since its population peak in the 1960s — a loss that coincided with the departure of much of the local economic base. One of the best ways that individuals can help the city rebuild is to support the local artists, musicians and craftspeople who have made this city such a special place to live and work in. Jazz Fest is an opportunity to assist in the recovery while having the time of your life.
Jordan Flaherty is a journalist based in New Orleans. His book Floodlines: Community and Resistance From Katrina to the Jena Six is available for purchase at the book tent at Jazz Fest.