A First-Timer’s Guide to the New Orleans Jazz Fest

New Orleans Jazz Fest
New Orleans Jazz Fest Photo by David Fary

There are many jazz festivals the whole world over, yet there is only one celebration of the genre in the city that birthed it: the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, which will take over the city during the last weekend in April, the first weekend in May, and pretty much all days in between.

It is fair to say Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest are the two keystone entries of the New Orleans events calendar. Where Mardi Gras is a celebration with deep Catholic and pagan roots that is indelibly branded by the city of New Orleans, Jazz Fest is rather a celebration of New Orleans itself. That’s the backstory on the “& Heritage” description in the official Jazz Fest title: the event has become less about showcasing jazz per se, and more about showing off the city that gave us jazz.

Because New Orleans is so central to pop music, almost any act and genre you can imagine has strutted across the New Orleans Jazz Fest’s 14 stages – and yes, there are 14 stages popping off in the New Orleans Fairgrounds and Racetrack during Jazz Fest. As a result of this sheer scope and size, in many ways Jazz Fest feels like too overwhelming of an event to properly tackle, especially for those who are new to the event.

Regarding those 14 stages and their acts, we do think it’s only fair to point out that there are plenty of commentators who think festival organizers have unfairly stretched the definition of what music falls under the jazz and heritage rubric. We’re not here to debate that topic, but rather point out that there is undoubtedly a wide variety of genre presence at Jazz Fest, which only adds to the looming sense of choice overload.

With all of that in mind, there are some sound tactics for making Jazz Fest more manageable. Here are some of our time-tested strategies.

Ride a Bike

While this choice isn’t going to work for everyone – some visitors simply don’t have urban cycling experience or are scared of the prospect – we can’t stress just how much cycling can improve the Jazz Fest experience. Even the most diehard Jazz Fest boosters will admit parking can be a nightmare during the festival. Parking enforcement officers are on high alert – we’ve never seen the impound lot on Claiborne get quite so busy as it does during Jazz Fest.

Of course, you can pay for parking. Folks who live near the Fairgrounds will turn even the smallest plot of backyard into an impromptu parking lot (rates vary, but around $30 per day seemed to be the going rate last year). There are other ways of outflanking the parking issue, including the official Jazz Fest shuttle, taxis (normal and bicycle rickshaws) and the streetcar; note that if you take the streetcar, you’ll still have to walk about a half mile to the festival entrance.

But we really love getting to Jazz Fest on two non-motorized wheels. Bike lane infrastructure can now bring riders to the gates of Jazz Fest; if you’re staying in the French Quarter, the bike ride to the Fairgrounds covers a 10-15 minute straight shot up Esplanade Avenue. Plus, there is extensive bicycle ‘parking’ (overlooked by security staff) on site. While we can’t guarantee what the weather will be like during Jazz Fest weekends, in general, late April and early May form a lovely climate window in New Orleans.

Past all of this, being on a bicycle gives visitors a better sense of the city. You can see New Orleans at the street level without the loss of time walking might engender. There’s an intimacy to biking in the city that’s tough to replicate from a car. For more information on taking a bicycle to Jazz Fest, head here, and note that bicycle rentals will be filling fast as the date of the festival approaches.

Shaping Your Cube

The Jazz Fest lineup is famously scheduled into ‘cubes’ for attendees. Devising a schedule for seeing all of your favorite acts can be a fun logistical challenge, but don’t forget that the 14 stages of Jazz Fest are spread out over a decently large area. If you’re in the middle of the crowd at one of the main stages, it can take about 10 or 15 minutes just to extricate yourself from the center of mass.

Note that Sundays and Thursdays always feel a little bit less crowded at the race track, although that ‘little bit less’ is admittedly a relative number – there’s no real ‘light’ days at Jazz Fest. The way you assemble your cube is up to you, but here are some pointers we’ve picked up on over the years.

  • Stick to your cube, but don’t do so religiously. Part of the fun of Jazz Fest is simply letting the music take you wherever it wants to go.
  • Don’t ignore smaller stages. We found one of our great unexpected Jazz Fest shows at the Kids Tent. We also always find the Fais Do-Do stage to be a consistently good break in our routine – basically, you can never go wrong dancing to Cajun or zydeco music.
  • Visit the Gospel Tent at least once. We’ve consistently found that even those who know next to nothing about gospel music have their spirits lifted and their musical boundaries expanded in this venue.

Cool Off

It can get hot in Jazz Fest. A few good means of beating the heat include:

  • Air conditioning in the Grandstands.
  • Mist tents by the Gentilly Stage and #2 food vendor area.
  • Sitting down and relaxing the vicinity of the Louisiana Folklife Village.
  • Strawberry Lemonade and Mango Freeze! And of course, water.
  • Stay out of the scrum for bigger headliners.

Priorities, Priorities

While the price of Jazz Fest tickets continues to climb, the fact of the matter is you can still see some pretty grade A headliners for a bargain rate compared to similar (or even smaller) festivals. Many locals treat Jazz Fest as a chance to see big acts (for example: Tom Petty and Stevie Wonder this year) on the relative cheap. On the flip side, if you live in or near the city, you can see the New Orleans musicians throughout the year at local venues, which means there’s less pressure to see them on the Fairgrounds.

If you’re coming in from out of town, you may have the opposite scenario prioritized – you can see big name acts anywhere, but this is your best chance of seeing Louisiana music in its native soil. In addition, smaller local acts often occupy stages that are less crowded, and everyone enjoys a break from the seething masses. With all of that said, don’t forget that during the ‘off days’ in between the two festival weekends, many smaller and mid-sized acts will be playing gigs around town; if you miss them at Fest, you may well catch them on Frenchmen. With that said, there’s something about seeing local acts at Jazz Fest. The big name headliners are used to huge audiences. A local Louisiana act is playing to wow the world, and some of their sets end up being nothing short legendary.

See a list of events happening during the weeks of The New Orleans Jazz Fest.

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