Nowadays, music festivals seem to be less about music, and more like a competition both in endurance and fashion choices. I may be a millennial, but even I have uttered the phrase, “I’m too old for this” while sweating in a shadeless field, straining to hear a band over endless chatter. But what if I told you about a festival where people of all ages and backgrounds get together to actually listen to music; where the myriad food options are just as celebrated; where it’s acceptable, encouraged even, to wear loose, comfortable cotton clothing printed with watermelon slices, red beans, or trumpets? If you’ve been to the New Orleans Jazz Heritage Festival, universally known as Jazz Fest, you know what I’m talking about.
Yes, you’ll find your big-time headliners at Jazz Fest like Stevie Wonder, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, and Alabama Shakes, but the real stars are the New Orleans and Southern-based artists like traditional jazz groups, brass bands, zydeco outfits, gospel choirs, true blues performers, and for-real funk players. Blessedly, the festival also coincides with peak crawfish season, which many of the over 70 vendors lining the New Orleans Fairgrounds turn into everything from étouffeé to enchiladas. Then there’s the acts you won’t see on stage like impromptu second lines lead by Mardi Gras Indians.
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Whether you're attending one day or both weekends, here’s how to make the most of your time at Jazz Fest.
WHERE TO STAY
New Orleans has seen a bevy of new boutique hotel options open up in the past two years including the Ace Hotel, centrally located, yet away from the fray. Not only is one of the city’s best new restaurants, Josephine Estelle, just one elevator ride away, so is their in-house coffee shop Stumptown, which specializes in cold brew, perfect for the city’s steamy mornings. In the lobby, the hotel’s venue Three Keys, a hidden music box, hosts special programming featuring festival artists in an intimate setting.
DURING THE FESTIVAL
Once you grab a paper schedule of events at the entrance, it’s easy to get overwhelmed and lose your Big Easy buzz, but remember, Jazz Fest is not a competition. If there’s a bucket list headliner you’ve come to see, you can devote your time to one stage for a day, but the best strategy: treat the festival like a buffet. Don't miss acts like Irma Thomas (NOLA's Queen of Soul), Dr. John, The Meters, The New Orleans R&B Divas featuring The Dixie Cups, a Tribute to Buckwheat Zyedco, or Walter "Wolfman" Washington.
The same strategy applies to the food. With so many options, all reasonably priced, there's no reason to hold back. My favorites? Crawfish Enchiladas from Prejean’s or Crawfish Bread from Panorama Foods, a Cochon de Lait Po Boy from Love at First Bite, Gumbo from Lil Dizzy’s Cafe, or for a cooler option, fresh shrimp and vermicelli spring rolls from Ba Mien Vietnamese Cuisine. For dessert? Beignets from Cafe du Monde or for something more refreshing, a mango freeze from legendary local radio station WWOZ's booth.
Of course, no New Orleans festival would be complete without a second line or five. It’s hard to miss the ones lead by various tribes of Mardis Gras Indians, bedecked in fluorescent feathered and beaded suits and headpieces.
AFTER THE FESTIVAL
Another reason why Jazz Fest is the greatest? It ends at 7 p.m. That means there’s plenty of time afterwards to enjoy the rest of the city. But first, walk towards Liuzza’s By the Track, a locally loved bar and cafe where the scene outside turns into a block party with kids playing trombones, festival goers dancing in the streets, and residents throwing porch parties. You might even run into a few offering free sangria with donations taken for a good cause: to make more free sangria. You can also make your way to nearby watering holes, patio-paradise Bayou Beer Garden (If they’re hosting a crawfish boil, take advantage.), delightfully divey Pal’s Lounge, or Parkway Bakery and Tavern for post-fest po' boys.
Some of the best shows during Jazz Festival don’t happen at the Fairgrounds but later in the evening on Frenchmen Street in the French Quarter or at various other clubs in the city like Tipitina’s or The Howlin’ Wolf. (Check out complete listings in Offbeat or WWOZ’s Live Wire.) If you truly want to see a once-in-a-lifetime performance, buy a ticket to Preservation Hall’s charity benefit Midnight Preserves, where the Hall’s legendary jazz band play nightly shows with the festival’s big names. Previous collaborations include artists like Jimmy Buffett and Elvis Costello.
If you’re more the relax-over-dinner type when it comes to nightlife, make a later reservation at one of our favorite spots like Angeline (modern Southern-French bistro in the Quarter), Sylvain (for courtyard conniseurs), Pêche (Seafood saveurs head here.), Boucherie (upscale Cajun in the Lower Garden District), or N7 (a wine bar and hidden tapas utopia).
BEFORE YOU LEAVE
Pick up a few souvenirs on your way out of town from our favorite local shops like a tea towel printed with “Let’s Eat Lunch and Talk About Dinner” from Dirty Coast, house-printed t-shirt from Defend New Orleans, or some fresh vinyl from Domino Sound Record Shack’s New Orleans music section. A bottle of wine from the expertly curated selection at Keife and Co. couldn’t hurt either.