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Everything You Need to Know About Jazz Fest in New Orleans

Performers on stage at the New Orleans Jazz Fest

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.

What is Jazz Fest?

Jazz Fest 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 2019 the festival will feature more than 600 bands on 13 stages over eight days. Yet it somehow also retains its unpretentious, funky, local soul.

Who is performing at Jazz Fest in 2019?

Jazz Fest celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2019, with a star-studded music lineup that includes headliners such as the Rolling Stones (the festival added an extra day for them, with limited-availability tickets), Katy Perry, Diana Ross, Dave Matthews, Van Morrison, Gladys Knight, Bonnie Raitt, Al Green, Alanis Morissette, the Indigo Girls, Santana, Chaka Khan, Ani DiFranco, Ciara, Galactic, Jimmy Buffett, Taj Mahal, Chris Stapleton, Pitbull, Boz Scaggs, Herbie Hancock, Leon Bridges, Aaron Neville, Trombone Shorty, and Irma Thomas—to name a few. You’ll also have the chance to see hundreds of local acts whose performances may leave the strongest impressions.

Mardi Gras Indians at Jazz Fest
Is Jazz Fest good for families?

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, and City Park (prices $16 to $22).

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What kind of food is served at Jazz Fest?

It’s music you’ll listen to at 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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What else is there to do at Jazz Fest?

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 four 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. For the 50th celebration, the festival will bring back past favorites, with performing groups from Haiti, South America, Cuba, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Martinique, and Canada—as well as several new groups from Africa, the Caribbean, and Canada.

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.

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At Jazz Fest, you’ll see all kinds of revelers and music fans.
What should you wear to Jazz Fest?

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.

What should you do at night?

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 fest-goers 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.

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When is Jazz Fest in 2019?

This year’s dates are April 25 to 28 and May 2 to 5. Advance tickets are on sale now and can be purchased for $75 per day (or $85 at the gate). With the exception of this year’s additional day (May 2), which has a limited amount of tickets, you don’t need to worry about tickets selling out—there’s room for everyone. Flights and lodging are another matter, though, so book ASAP. For tickets, full schedule, and more info, visit the official Jazz Fest website.

>> Next: Plan Your Trip with AFAR’s Guide to New Orleans


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