Courtesy of NewOrleans.com
Courtesy of NewOrleans.com
The New Orleans Jazz Fest celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2019.
If you’re visiting New Orleans to take part in the festivities, here’s what you’ll need to know about how to plan your days, which performances to see, and what to eat.
The first thing you need to know about the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival—universally called Jazz Fest—is that it covers far, far more than jazz. In fact, a better name might be Rock-Pop-R&B-Jazz-Blues-Funk-Hip-Hop-Gospel-Zydeco-Folk-Bluegrass-Country-Caribbean-Latin-and-Food Fest. Much like the city it calls home, Jazz Fest defies definition and marches to its own drumbeat. (It’s also distinct from the French Quarter Festival, which takes place earlier in the year.)
Here’s what you need to know about New Orleans Jazz Fest 2020.
The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival (or Jazz Fest as its affectionately know) began in 1970 in Congo Square, the open-area space where enslaved Africans gathered on Sundays in the early 1800s and created the sounds that would ultimately influence all American music. The inaugural event, which featured Mahalia Jackson, Fats Domino, and Duke Ellington, drew a humble audience of 350. Today it’s one of the planet’s greatest musical extravaganzas, with an annual attendance of roughly half a million. Set inside a 145-acre horse racetrack, in 2020 the festival will welcome 400,000 visitors over several days, with hundreds of bands on multiple stages. Yet it somehow also retains its unpretentious, funky, local soul.
Jazz Fest 2020 features a number of big international acts, including:
However, it’s the wealth of local talent and legendary New Orleans–related artists that really make the festival stand out from the usual summer schedule. Aaron Neville is back, as is Trombone Shorty and the always unmissable Preservation Hall Jazz Band, among dozens of others.
Absolutely. A family-friendly schedule (hours from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.) means you won’t need to hunt for a babysitter. Children aged 2 to 10 get in for $5, and a kids’ tent provides puppet shows, theater, youth choir performances, brass bands doing Disney numbers, a hands-on play area, and toddler-approved food. Meanwhile, older generations will enjoy the intimate performances, chairs, and water misters in the smaller tents. Strollers and wheelchairs are permitted, and you’ll skip parking hassles by taking the round-trip Jazz Fest Express Shuttle, which stops at the Sheraton Hotel, Steamboat Natchez Dock, Hyatt House and Wisner Lot/City Park (prices $16 to $22).
It’s music you’ll listen to at New Orleans Jazz Fest—but it’s food you’ll talk about. With 75 vendors offering more than 150 creations, you’re basically required to pig out. And we’re not talking pizza and corn dogs: Menus showcase regional tastes and influences, with more only-in-New-Orleans eats than you can shake a plastic fork at. Arrive hungry, and start with the obligatory crawfish bread, then progress to the life-changing cochon de lait po’boy and the pheasant, quail, and andouille gumbo. Try yakamein (hangover soup) and jama-jama (sautéed spinach), and save room for white chocolate bread pudding and a mango freeze. Then sample a completely different menu the next day.
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Shopping opportunities abound, with three big bazaars selling traditional and contemporary wares—from African instruments and Acadian furniture to hand-painted clothing and purses made of recycled cowboy boots. And you can explore NOLA’s rich culture in several dedicated areas that highlight local heritage.
In the Louisiana Folklife Village, you’ll see artisans creating traditional treasures; the Native American Village honors indigenous culture with dances, crafts, and food; the air-conditioned Grandstand has beautiful exhibits and four stages of music, interviews, and cooking demos; and the Cultural Exchange Pavilion celebrates New Orleans’s ancestry, featuring a different guest country each year.
Then there are the parades. Every day during the festival, Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs dance through the crowd wearing colorful suits festooned with flowers and feathers, buck jumping, twirling parasols, and waving handkerchiefs as a brass band plays. Also parading are Mardi Gras Indians—African American tribes who celebrate their unique cultural tradition dating back to the 1800s. Dressed in magnificent beaded and feathered costumes they’ve spent all year creating, they chant, sing, and drum. A quintessential Jazz Fest experience is jumping in and dancing along. When you join a second-line parade, you become part of New Orleans’s story—a centuries-old tale of boundless, indomitable spirit.
Late spring in the Crescent City feels a lot like summer, so expect hot, humid days. And since you’ll be walking a dirt track, plan for a little dust. All manner of fashion flies at the festival, from spangled dresses and sequined fedoras to cargo shorts and tanks. But you’ll be happiest slathered in sunblock, wearing light, airy clothes, a wide-brimmed hat, sunglasses, and your comfiest walking/dancing sandals.
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Good news, night owls: The party doesn’t end when the gates close at 7 p.m.—it spreads through the city. An undeniable feature of Jazz Fest is the bevy of well-past-midnight shows in the French Quarter and on Frenchmen Street and at legendary venues like Tipitina’s and Preservation Hall. Local artists gig all over town, and visiting headliners sometimes sit in. Over the years, late-night festgoers have been treated to pop-up performances by the likes of Stevie Wonder, Sharon Jones, Alabama Shakes, and U2’s The Edge. You never know who might appear, and that’s part of the magic.
This year’s dates are April 23 to 26 and May 1 to 3. Advance tickets are on sale now and can be purchased for $75 per day (or $85 at the gate). The Saturday of both weekends costs a little more: $90 in advance (with gate price currently TBC). Flights and lodging are another matter, though, so book ASAP. For tickets, full schedule, and more info, visit the official Jazz Fest website. Read our review of Jazz Fest 2019 here for more on why it’s such an unmissable experience.
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