Jazzfest, Mardi Gras, Voodoofest… It’s All New Orleans Music
If you’re a fan of American music – jazz, blues, folk, rock and roll and all of its variants – then a visit to enjoy New Orleans music should easily be on your Top 5 list. (For the rest of your list, choose from Nashville, Chicago, Austin, Seattle, New York and L.A.)
Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans Music?
No other American city celebrates its music, food, drink, culture and heritage quite like New Orleans. And no other city produces music as unique as the Crescent City. There is no mistaking the sound of New Orleans for anything else. And because there is such a vibrant local scene, many of the musicians don’t travel because they don’t have to. Which means you’ll have to go to them, since they won’t be coming to you.
Party? This is Your Town!
In NOLA (New Orleans Louisiana), locals live for the party, for the excuse to close down a street and get into a second-line parade which could be a celebration or a jazz funeral (approximately the same thing) and to crowd into restaurants both upscale and “stand while you eat” your po’boy sandwich counters.
In fact, I’m convinced that New Orleans isn’t really a part of the United States. They hardly pay the rest of the country any mind; they play by their own rules and have enough on their plate right in town.
Jazzfest is a Test of Endurance
Recently, we were there for our second Jazz and Heritage Festival, aka Jazzfest. In typical NOLA style, it is an over-the-top festival of excess.
Here’s the rundown: Jazzfest is held at the Fairgrounds in the aptly named Fairgrounds neighborhood. (Just a quick tip on directions in NOLA – don’t bother with north, south, east or west. No one orients that way since the street layout curves inside the bow of the Mississippi. You won’t know north from west and neither does anyone else. Learn the name of the neighborhood or the nearest big intersection.)
A New Orleans Jazzfest “Weekend” is Either Three or Four Days
Jazzfest happens over two amped-up weekends – the first is a three-day Friday to Sunday party and the second runs for four days, Thursday to Sunday. On the days in between, the bars and concert venues are hopping, many of them right till dawn.
On one of those in-between days, we were lucky enough to get into the House of Blues to catch Dr. John and a huge band featuring five horns perform a whole evening of Ray Charles songs. It was a one-off show and a lifetime memory. Another day the Neville Brothers were steaming up the room with a rare club gig in their hometown.
Preparation Pays Off
Jazzfest runs from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. with 12 stages going simultaneously. With 6 or 7 acts per stage per day, you have a choice of 60 – 70 acts on any given day, which will put you in a tough spot. This musical buffet means that no matter what you do, you’re going to miss most of it, including some of your favorites.
To get ready, I print out the schedules and a layout of the grounds as soon as they’re up on the Jazzfest site, about a month in advance. Then I start circling with a pencil.
Every year, there will be some big-name headliners – Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder, Bon Jovi – along with nationally touring mid-size bands such as Wilco and Drive-By Truckers. Then come really interesting southern and New Orleans acts that likely you’ve never heard of. Those are the ones to look up, listen to a sample of their work and explore, since it’s unlikely that they tour very far from New Orleans.
Strategies for Getting the Most From Jazzfest
There are two distinct strategies. Either pick a stage and camp out in front of it and see every act that shows up on that stage, or try to pick and choose and move from stage to stage. The first option is the easiest of course. Once you pick a stage, you only get up for food, drinks and the washroom. On different days, you can use either strategy or do a mash-up – see 3 acts on one stage, then move around. Keep in mind that moving from stage to stage takes up time, and if you get there just before show time, you won’t be anywhere near the front.
Go For the Locals
My advice – see local acts and genres of music you’re not usually exposed to. We’ll often hang out in the gospel tent because we don’t usually listen to gospel at home. Or, the Congo Square stage (named after the square where the slave market was held), for local artists. Also, pay attention and look for bands putting on special shows for Jazzfest. This last year, we made a point of seeing the Tedeschi Trucks Band, because unlike the show they take on the road, this one included guests Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top and Jimmy Vaughn of the Fabulous Thunderbirds. A unique experience!
My Favorite New Orleans Music and Musicians
I also have my NOLA favorites. I have to see the Queen of New Orleans, Miss Irma Thomas either on the big stage (yeah she plays the big stage here) or in the gospel tent. A show we’ll never forget was a gospel tribute to Sister Rosetta Tharpe that featured Irma Thomas, Maria Muldaur, Marcia Ball, Tracy Nelson and Angela Strehli. By the third song, their soulful harmonies had most of the audience in tears. After a long ovation, they had to leave – another act was coming on.
Add to that the New Orleans Jazz Vipers, Dr. John, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band and the various Indian tribes such as Big Chief Walter Cook & the Creole Wild West Mardi Gras Indians, Wild Apaches Mardi Gras Indians and the Mohawk Hunters Mardi Gras Indians. (Learn more about the Mardi Gras Indians here.)
You Could Visit New Orleans Just for the Food
I haven’t mentioned the food yet. You could come to Jazzfest just to eat. Unlike other festivals, you won’t find any of the big corporate names here – all of the dozens of food concessions are local. So everything from shrimp, po’boy sandwiches, fried chicken, red beans and rice, Tunisian specialties, ice cream and on and on comes from a local vendor.
You’ll Have a Great Time at the Clubs
Once the day is over, you’ll have enough time for a shower, dinner and then hit the clubs. Where else will you find bars called Chickie Wah Wah, the Rock ‘n Bowl ( aka Mid-City Lanes, yes it’s a bowling alley with incredible live bands), the legendary Tipitina’s, One-Eyed Jacks or Igor’s Check Point Charlie (where you can also do your laundry). And when you get home at about 3 a.m., you can sleep in until say 10, and then it’s time for another day of music in the Big Easy.
Time Your NOLA Visit For One of These Music Festivals
Mardi Gras in on Fat Tuesday, before Lent in February. There are similar carnivals around the world, but this is the one to catch in North America.
Jazzfest runs towards the end of April, early May. One three-day weekend, followed by a four-day weekend.
The Ponderosa Stomp runs during the days between Jazzfest weekends. It’s a celebration of unsung heroes and heroines, the architects of rock-n-roll, blues, jazz, country, swamp pop, reggae and soul.
The Satchmo SummerFest runs for three days in early August. With outdoor concerts, music history seminars, jazz exhibits, a jazz mass, a second-line parade and plenty of local food and drink. Nearly all of the participating musicians are New Orleans-based.
The Voodoo Music and Arts Experience takes place over a three-day weekend each October around Hallowe’en (is there a more appropriate holiday for New Orleans? I don’t think so.) Don’t miss the festival’s signature event, the “world’s largest jazz brunch”.
General Advice for Having Fun in NOLA
Take taxis or Uber. Driving can be confusing, and parking is either expensive or impossible.
Have cocktails. After all, they were invented in New Orleans. Try a Sazerac, Hurricane, Mint Julep, Ramos Gin Fizz and a Brandy Milk Punch to go with brunch! Careful, they’re all very tasty.
Drink water. Because of the cocktails.
Wear a hat and protect yourself against the sun. You’re in the south.
At Jazzfest, if you need a break, head for the clubhouse. It’s air-conditioned and they’ll have cooking demos, interviews with artists and cultural exhibits.
You only need to see Bourbon Street once. Do a walk-through. Great for strip clubs if that’s what you’re looking for, but there’s so much more to see and do in NOLA than its most famous street.
NOLA has wonderful art galleries and museums. My favorites are:
The National WWII Museum is also very popular and just around the corner from the Ogden Museum. There are many others. A quick search brings up a long list.
If you like American music, you need to visit New Orleans. If you like to eat, or just have a good time, well, NOLA of course! Have fun!
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