Since its humble beginnings more than 40 years ago, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival has provided residents and visitors to the Big Easy with more than just toe-tapping tunes. In fact, during this year’s event dates (April 26 through 28 and May 2 to 5), festival-goers will have the opportunity to revel in the best of New Orleans’s culture, whether it be listening to musical headliners like Jill Scott or Billy Joel, browsing the booths of craft marketplaces or experiencing Louisiana heritage in one of the cultural villages. And for those looking to savor some of the city’s most delectable dishes, no shortage of local restaurants and caterers will be on hand to highlight the Crescent City’s signature Cajun flavors and edibles like beignets. Regardless of your tastes in food, music or art, there are sure to be enough activities at this year’s Jazz Fest to keep both your itinerary and stomach full.
What to Know
When the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival first started in 1970, there were only 350 attendees. The festival has since exploded in popularity, setting itself apart as one of the premier music events in the United States. Last year, approximately 450,000 music and food lovers filed into Fair Grounds Race Course, the festival’s home base.
With that said, the first thing you’ll have to decide is which weekend to attend, and what type of festival pass best suits your needs. Single day tickets for both weekends are $50 in advance and $65 at the gate; for the full experience, though, a VIP pass is the better option. The Big Chief VIP Experience ($1,125-$1,275) often sells out—it includes admission, re-entry privileges, access to exclusive viewing areas at the most popular stages, a special VIP hospitality lounge and upgraded restrooms. The Grand Marshal VIP pass, includes slightly fewer perks but also a cheaper price tag—at $750 for the first weekend and $850 for the second, is a solid choice for attendees who want an upgraded Jazz Fest experience.
Regardless of which admission option you choose, leave your car at home for this festival. You can take unlimited rides around the city on the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority’s (RTA) fleet of buses and streetcars with a one-day Jazzy Pass for $3 (there’s also a three-day option for $9). You also can hop on the Jazz Fest Express to enjoy an air-conditioned ride right onto the festival grounds. Round-trip rides cost $14 and $18 per day, depending on where you board.
What to Do
Live music is obviously the major attraction, and with 12 stages showcasing the latest jazz, gospel, blues, rock, Latin, African and folk sensations, you’ll get your fill. This year’s headliners include Billy Joel, Fleetwood Mac, Dave Matthews Band, Trombone Shorty, The Black Keys, Willie Nelson and B.B. King — apart from those acts, though, keep an eye out for up-and-comers such as Andrew Bird, MUTEMATH and Frank Ocean, plus legendary ensembles like The New Orleans Jazz Orchestra and The Del McCoury Band with Preservation Hall Jazz Band. The full lineup is available on the festival’s website, and there’s also a handy iPhone and Android app that allows users to build a daily itinerary.
Heritage plays a key role in the festival, as well, and there are several places to learn more about the funky spirit of New Orleans through its art and culture. More than 130 different booths fill three distinct craft villages — Congo Square African Marketplace, Contemporary Crafts and Louisiana Marketplace — where artists sell everything from handmade clothing to original photography and unique sculptures. After you’ve picked up a few one-of-a-kind mementos, head over to one of the cultural villages for a few hours of learning. This year, you’ll have your choice of the Louisiana Folklife Village, the Native American Village and The Grandstand (insider tip: The Grandstand is air-conditioned).
If all the shopping, learning and listening doesn’t work up an appetite, the smell of more than 70 local restaurateurs and caterers cooking up a storm sure will. Festival food goes gourmet at Jazz Fest, and many of the vendors take pride in serving authentic local flavors in dishes like Cajun shrimp-and-duck pasta, crawfish, beignets, sweet potato turnovers, roasted jumbo peanuts and ambrosia iced tea. We recommend sampling the hot sausage po-boy from Vaucresson Sausage Co.—it’s been a Jazz Fest staple since 1970.
Where to Party
Should you happen to have black tie formal wear in your suitcase, consider putting it to good use at the Jazz & Heritage Gala. This annual fundraiser benefits the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and Foundation, the nonprofit that oversees Jazz Fest. Each year, the event brings together gourmands and jazz musicians for a memorable evening of dining and dancing. This year’s performers include the Grammy Award-winning Rebirth Brass Band, the Dirty Dozen and special guest host Kermit Ruffins. Admission includes a pass to the festival that’s good for all seven days. $500; April 25; 7 p.m.; Hilton New Orleans Riverside.
One of the best things about Jazz Fest is its curfew: Promptly at 7 p.m. each evening, festivalgoers leave the central grounds and venture out into the city’s famous nightlife districts. Many musicians choose to schedule their own unofficial Jazz Fest shows throughout New Orleans, with surprise shows popping up at live music hotspots like d.b.a., Tipitina’s and Maple Leaf Bar.
Where to Stay
While it may be tough to find a room in the Big Easy during Jazz Fest, there were still a few available throughout the French Quarter, downtown and metro areas when we checked recently. But if you’re looking for a luxurious stay, book a room at The Ritz-Carlton, New Orleans. The Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star hotel sits in the lively French Quarter and here you can recharge with a relaxing treatment at the hotel’s Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star, 25,000-square-foot spa or relive the day’s best moments over a meal at the Four-Star M bistro.
The Sheraton New Orleans is the official host hotel of the festival, and while we can’t guarantee that you’ll be able to make a reservation this close to the festival, we do recommend stopping by the hotel’s Pelican Bar to meet up with other festivalgoers, enjoy a cocktail and scope out any celebrities who may be staying in the hotel’s suites.
Photos Courtesy of Douglas Mason, Terry Richardson PR, John Mayer, Widespread Panic, Trombone Shorty