Lost in Music: A Weekend Immersed in New Orleans Culture as Jazz Fest Hits 50

Half a century in, the music festival still offers a taste of local life like no other event.

Lost in Music: A Weekend Immersed in New Orleans Culture as Jazz Fest Hits 50

Trombone Shorty brings Jazz Fest to a close on the second Sunday each year.

Photo by Douglas Mason

At most festivals, you catch a few bands. At Jazz Fest, they catch you. Music is everywhere. It’s unavoidable. It’s there emanating from live musicians inside the kids’ merry-go-round. It’s propelled through the air by second line parades marching through every artery of the fairgrounds. It heralds the arrival of another tribe of passing Black Masking Indians. It pumps out of multiple stage speakers, mingling in the humid air as you dash between performances trying to catch every last beat.

Over 48 frantic hours I caught all kinds of musical delights at the event, which is officially known as the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, as it celebrated its 50th edition. Among the highlights: Aaron Neville’s understated “Hercules” as the sun broke through the clouds; Chaka Khan’s high energy “Ain’t Nobody” in front of a huge crowd; Diana Ross tearing through several costume changes and dozens of hits from the Motown days onward.

Then there was Big Chief Bo Dollis, Jr., proudly continuing his father’s legacy with The Wild Magnolias. Their set was a funky melange of flying bass solos, frenetic keyboards, overlapping percussion, and a feathered line of spectacular Indian outfits. Two men near me hugged midway through and wished each other a “happy Jazz Fest.”

It was a refrain I heard a lot, and it is a happy fest. It’s infused with joy, and that’s before you step into the gospel tent and experience the endorphin-boosting full force of, say, The Johnson Extension or Grammy winner (and Obama inauguration performer) Shirley Caesar.

Da Knockaz Brass Band with Ole & Nu Style Fellas, just one of many musical delights off-stage at the festival.

Da Knockaz Brass Band with Ole & Nu Style Fellas, just one of many musical delights off-stage at the festival.

Photo by Jacqueline Marque

It’s also an event devoted to local talent and tradition, quite unlike any other festival. Sure, Katy Perry popped in and The Stones were scheduled before canceling due to Mick’s illness, but most of the line-up comes from Louisiana or nearby or shares another connection. Much of it plays on the city’s history. The New Orleans Classic R&B Legends slot featured, well, many legends, including Clarence “Frogman” Henry and The Dixie Cups. The latter were introduced with a wry “this young group were the first to knock the Beatles from Number One.” An all-star tribute to Allen Toussaint, with appearances from Jimmy Buffet, Aaron Neville, and soul queen Irma Thomas, was a similar celebration of the past.

But the present was repped too; Trombone Shorty, who traditionally closes the second weekend, is in his early 30s and just one higher-profile member of the new generation continuing the NOLA noise.

The celebration of local culture doesn’t stop at the music. The range of regional food, most of which someone insists you must try, brings decision paralysis to mealtimes. Shrimp and okra gumbo or alligator sauce piquante? Crawfish remoulade or crabmeat po’boy? My Sunday was eventually fueled by Crawfish Monica, a creamy, spicy pasta dish flecked with juicy tails, and a cochon du lait po’boy. You must try them.

The Louisiana Folklife Village and Louisiana Marketplace, meanwhile, offer demonstrations of traditional crafts including basket-making and wood-carving, information on indigenous history, and opportunities to buy local items. You could spend a day wandering these tents alone, before you even get to the cultural exhibits and talks in the Grandstand area.

I missed a conversation with Kamasi Washington there, but then I missed a lot of stuff, including a band (The Radiators) referred to in the program as “groupie-spawning fish-head rockers.” Maybe next year. As with all great fests, you really need to experience it two or three times.

Big Chief Bo Dollis, Jr. and The Wild Magnolias brought color and drama to the Jazz & Heritage Stage.

Big Chief Bo Dollis, Jr. and The Wild Magnolias brought color and drama to the Jazz & Heritage Stage.

Photo by Joshua Brasted

Curfews are taken lightly here, a refreshing approach in a world where the more corporate events pull the plug if you run over by a minute. Gladys Knight trampled over her finish time by introducing every band member before delivering the essential “Midnight Train to Georgia” and John Fogerty had a handful of hits left to go when the clock struck 7 p.m. It’s an unusually early time for a festival to end, but New Orleans’s Dionysian delights aren’t far away and the music doesn’t stop there. As I left the site Sunday, passing under giant live oak trees and beside porch parties in front of every other house, Fogerty’s finale faded away and new sounds blended into each other in a rich sonic gumbo. PM Dawn roared out from a passing SUV; a beer seller turned up Michael Jackson; another streetside DJ cued up Professor Longhair’s NOLA classic “Big Chief” while a freestyle rapper narrated commentary on passersby and a restaurant blared screeching jazz as a siren call for hungry customers. I got into a Lyft decked out with disco lights and a sound system rigged for passengers to choose their tunes. New Orleans won’t abide the sound of silence.

Back at my hotel, the Hyatt Regency in the Central Business District, the bars were playing lively jazz. The Hyatt dives into the springtime festival spirit, featuring second lines through the communal spaces during Mardi Gras and survival kits for guests heading to Jazz Fest, as well as a curated Spotify playlist to get you in the mood.

How to spend the rest of the night? A local magazine offered an article with tips for seeing music for 24 hours straight. The festival program listed no less than 40 shows in town for Sunday evening alone.

I ended up at the Ace, which runs a musical program focusing on new talent in tandem with Jazz Fest called Six of Saturns, to see Deva Mehal and the Nth Power. Deva strode onto the stage in a futuristic gold headdress and led her tight band through an equally forward-looking genre mash-up that kept the Sunday night stragglers going strong.

“Thanks for being here and not at home watching Game of Thrones,” she told the growing crowd. An evening in watching HBO? Not in this town.

>> Next: Intimate Portraits of New Orleans’s Black Masking Indians

Tim Chester is a deputy editor at AFAR, focusing primarily on destination inspiration and sustainable travel. He lives near L.A. and likes spending time in the waves, on the mountains, or on wheels.
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