Not unlike jazz itself, The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival has a long, rich history. The spirit of the festival was born in 1970, somewhat spontaneously when legendary gospel singer Mahalia Jackson and Duke Ellington started an impromptu performance with a parading brass band. Fast-forward to 2018 and the fest treated thousands of attendees to another successful year. The Jazz and Heritage Festival will now be gearing up for their 50th-year celebration coming in April 2019. To help you get planning, we’ve created a little extra inspiration to start your march down to NOLA.
The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival never lacks talent. Most recently, in 2018, the fest welcomed traditional contemporary jazz artists like Trombone Shorty, blues guitarists like Buddy Guy, classic rock artists, among them Rod Stewart, modern legends such as Jack White, and even Common and other rappers. Many of these artists also came together to participate in a tribute to the late Fats Domino, one of New Orleans’s favorite sons. The variation in musical genres occurs every year and is a testament to jazz enthusiasts and historians believing jazz is the true essence of American music. The 50th anniversary promises to be one of the best lineups ever; their last milestone celebration for 45 years featured huge names like Bruce Springsteen, Eric Clapton, Santana, Phish, The Avett Brothers, and Christina Aguilera, to only name a few. The festival is usually distributed amongst 14 different stages, including the Congo Square Stage that focuses on Afro-centric and world music, The Gospel Tent, and the joyfully named Fais Do-Do stage which houses Cajun dance parties and zydeco performers.
In the last 5 years or so, festivals have firmly weaseled their way into American consciousness. But for those visiting The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival don’t expect the crowd to be entirely composed of 20-year-olds bedazzled from head to toe in glitter, pasties, and neon. The jazz fest instead attracts a more diverse crowd, many of whom are there for smooth jams instead of headbangers, and for the Heritage part of the festival. Aside from the music, organizers make a huge effort to impart some of the NOLA culture on all those in attendance. This is clear when wandering around the grounds, much of the area is dedicated specifically to representing the many different cultures among the people of New Orleans. Probably the most popular of these demonstrations are the parades that take place throughout each day. In particular, be sure to make time for a Mardi Gras Indian parade. The Mardi Gras Indians are thought to have got their start in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show but have since evolved to include 38 “tribes” decked out in Native ceremonial garb that has been adapted to include the colors and flair of Carnival.
For those wanting to do a touch of shopping or to witness a hands-on display of artistry, head over to the three craft villages and marketplaces dispersed amongst the grounds. The three craft centers include the Congo Square African Marketplace, where you can find hand-carved African drums, the Contemporary Crafts near Heritage Square selling fine leather goods, and the Louisiana Marketplace with its Acadian and Creole furniture. While all three have their own unique flair, certain staples are consistent across all crafting areas like fine art/photography, jewelry, and clothing.
When looking through some of the numerous food options available at the festival, those inexperienced in the ways of the bayou may think they are ordering otherworldly dishes whose names are essentially nonsense. Visitors do not have to stray far to find po’boys, Crawfish Monicas, cochon de lait, and muffuletta. The reality is the weeklong fest has food that far exceeds normal carnival food and even if some dishes have intimidating names, odds are they’re pretty tasty. For those who don’t know and need more convincing…Po’boys and muffuletta are traditional Louisianan sandwiches, Crawfish Monica is more or less pasta salad with crawfish, and cochon de lait is a roasted suckling pig. But for those who crave adventure while they eat: the alligator sausage po’boy comes highly recommended. Regardless of tastes, the festival can brag about their 70+ food booths, the majority of which use local ingredients to give everyone a good sample of Louisiana.
While the festival pulls together some of the greatest artists the world has ever seen, there is no doubt who the real star of the show is; it’s the Big Easy. It would be a shame to travel all the way to NOLA and simply stay amongst the confines of the festival. Located at the Fair Grounds Race Course, the music and heritage activities take place only 10 minutes from the famous French Quarter. To encourage visitors to experience the lively and diverse atmosphere of the city, the jazz portion of the event expands itself to smaller shows in bars and clubs on Bourbon Street and other venues throughout town.