A first-timer’s guide to the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival

The annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, or simply Jazz Fest, is a massive springtime music and cultural festival that takes place over two consecutive weekends in late April and early May. Many music lovers of all ilk consider it the country’s premier music festival and return year after year. Others have called it the best party in America.

The name Jazz Fest is somewhat misleading, as jazz is only one component of the festival’s musical offerings. Performers represent a wide range of genres including jazz, rock, blues, gospel, R & B, Cajun, zydeco, folk, bluegrass, African, Caribbean and Latin. Non-stop performances take place on a dozen stages scattered around the festival site. In addition to music, there’s a huge selection of regional cuisine, arts and crafts booths, second line parades and numerous other attractions.

Over its seven-day run, the festival typically attracts around 400,000 visitors. Jazz Fest is really big and big-time fun.

When and Where
Most people attend Jazz Fest for only one of two weekends, though some stay for the duration. The first weekend begins on the last Friday of April and runs through Sunday. After a three-day hiatus, festivities begin again on Thursday and conclude on Sunday. The dates for Jazz Fest 2011 are April 29-May 1 and May 5-8. The festival takes place at the Fair Grounds Race Course in the Mid-City section of New Orleans, about three miles from Downtown and the French Quarter. Daily hours are from 11am to 7pm which leaves fest-goers time in the evening to explore the city’s famous restaurants, bars and clubs.

%Gallery-121740%Jazz Fest through the Years
The first New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival took place in 1970 in Congo Square, at the edge of the French Quarter. The single-day event attracted 350 people. It was produced by George Wein, founder of the Newport Jazz Festival in Rhode Island. The lineup for the first Jazz Fest included Mahalia Jackson, Duke Ellington, Pete Fountain, Al Hirt, Clifton Chenier, Fats Domino, The Meters and others. It quickly outgrew its original location and moved to its current site at the race track.

In 1975, the first limited-edition silkscreen festival poster was produced. Today, the Jazzfest poster collection is considered the world’s most popular poster series (you can view and purchase posters at www.art4now.com). In 2001, the year of Louis Armstrong’s centennial celebration, Jazz Fest set an all-time attendance record with 650,000 attendees.

Getting to New Orleans
Unless a springtime road trip is on your agenda, you’ll probably be arriving in New Orleans by plane. Discounted flights for Jazz Fest travelers are offered by American Airlines (discount code 2341BT) and United Airlines (discount code 584EZ). Delta Vacations offers combination air/hotel packages. If you’re having trouble finding suitable last-minute flights, consider flying into Houston’s Hobby airport then connecting with Southwest Airlines. Southwest offers numerous daily flights to New Orleans.

Where to Stay
With hotel rooms in high demand during the festival, don’t expect to find a great deal on lodging. Some hotels do offer slightly-discounted Jazz Fest rates. Priceline or Hotwire sometimes have affordable last-minute deals. Most visitors opt to stay in Downtown New Orleans or the adjacent French Quarter where much of the city’s dining and entertainment venues are concentrated. Another option is to stay in the quieter leafy Garden District which connects by streetcar to Downtown and the Fair Grounds.

From the Airport into Town
A rental car will be an unnecessary and expensive burden unless you’re staying in an out-of-the-way location. From the airport, you can get to your Downtown or French Quarter hotel by taxi, airport shuttle or city bus. Taxi fare is $33 for up to two people and $14 per person for three or four people. The shuttle costs $20 one-way ($38 RT). For $2, the Airport-Downtown Express bus (E-2) takes riders to the intersection of Tulane and Loyola in Downtown New Orleans (weekdays only). Board the bus at Entrance #7 in the airport’s upper level.

It’s more convenient to purchase tickets in advance than when you arrive at the fairgrounds. Single-day tickets are $45 in advance and $60 at the gate. Tickets for children age 2-10 are $5. Kids under 2 are free. A limited number of VIP tickets are sold which include perks such as parking privileges, access to private viewing areas at some stages, private restrooms and private beverage concessions.
Tickets are available online through Ticketmaster, by phone (800-745-3000) or in person at the New Orleans Arena Box Office. Service and handling fees are extra. Children’s tickets are not available in advance. You can also purchase a ticket when you book the Jazz Fest Express shuttle (see below).

Getting to the Fest
Even if you have a car, driving to the festival is not recommended. On-site parking is only available for those with disabilities or those who bought a VIP ticket with a parking option. Parking in the surrounding residential neighborhoods is not advisable. There are a variety of other transportation options to get to the fairgrounds.

Taxi: Expect to pay around $5 per person for a taxi from the French Quarter or Downtown. The queue for taxis leaving the fairgrounds at the end of the day can be quite long.

Express Bus: The Jazz Fest Express provides round-trip bus service from Downtown and City Park for $62-$77 with a festival ticket or $14-$17 without. It’s cheaper to book in advance, but not required.

Streetcar or City Bus: For cheap transportation, a streetcar or city bus costs $1.25 each way. Board the 47-48 Canal Street Streetcar marked City Park/Museum either along the river in the French Quarter or at any stop along the route and take it to the end of the line. From there, the festival entrance is eight blocks away. For bus transport, take the 91 Jackson/Esplanade line.

Bicycle: A great option, popular with many locals, is to bike to the Fest. Bike racks are available in a secure guarded location near the Gentilly entrance. Biking is also a convenient way to get around the French Quarter. Bicycle Michael’s, located on Frenchman Street, rents bikes for around $25-$35 per day depending on the length of rental.

What to Bring
Travel light but travel smart. Be prepared for hot weather. Shorts and short sleeves are de rigueur. So are sunglasses, a hat and sunscreen. Wear comfortable shoes or sandals as you’ll be doing a lot of walking. Walkways get muddy after rain showers so leave your sparkling white tennies at home. Carry a pocket-size disposable rain poncho. You can pick one up in the French Quarter for a buck or two. Earplugs are at your own discretion. Don’t forget cash and a camera.

You can bring in one sealed plastic water bottle and refill it throughout the day. Neighborhood entrepreneurs sell them for a dollar on the street near the entrance on Gentilly Boulevard or you can pay more inside. Bringing alcohol into the fairgrounds is not allowed. Packs and handbags are searched at the entrance. For a list of other prohibited items, see this pdf.

The Layout
There are a dozen stages scattered throughout the 145-acre festival site. Five of these are inside tents and offer seating and protection from the elements. At the other stages, be prepared to sit, stand or dance on grass, dirt or on a blanket if you have one. The Acura and Gentilly stages are the largest and are located at opposite ends of the infield. This is where the big-name headliners usually perform.

There are two main food areas and a smattering of other food and beverage concessions scattered around the grounds. There are also two main areas to purchase arts, crafts and souvenirs. Elsewhere, you’ll find a CD store, bookstore, T-Shirt booth, poster shop and a variety of other concessions.

If you need a break from the heat or crowds, head to the air-conditioned grandstand where you can get a refill of cold water, view a fascinating museum exhibit, take in a cooking demonstration and partake of indoor plumbing. The Lagniappe (Lan’-yap) stage, in the inner courtyard, is seldom crowded.

The Music
The quantity and variety of high-caliber musical performances that run continuously throughout the day is, quite simply, mind-boggling. It’s helpful to begin each day with a general plan, but keep in mind that flexibility and spontaneity are often rewarded.

Start by printing out a copy of “the cubes,” a graphic depiction of the musical line-up for each day from www.nojazzfest.com. Undoubtedly, you’ll discover that several of your “can’t-miss” bands are playing at the same time in different locations. Ah, life can be tough.

As you put together your daily Jazz Fest itinerary, be aware that good viewing real estate is in high demand for the big-name headliners, especially on Saturdays and Sundays at the Acura and Gentilly stages. Unless you’re willing to stake out a spot far in advance, you’ll likely end up viewing these high-profile bands from a different zip code.

No worries. Seasoned Jazz Fest aficionados will often tell you that their most memorable experiences took place seeing local, obscure or up-and-coming bands steps from the stage at the less populous venues.

With that in mind, the Fais Do-Do (Fay’ Dough-Dough) stage seldom has large crowds and often features foot-stomping, homegrown Cajun and zydeco music. In addition, the venue has a small grandstand where you can rest your feet or chow down on a po’boy in relative comfort.

For a unique Jazz Fest experience, take in a performance of Mardi Gras Indians at the Jazz & Heritage Stage. Make sure your camera battery is charged up. You haven’t really done Jazz Fest until you’ve experienced a set in the Gospel Tent. The vibe is otherworldly.

If the music isn’t doing it for you at one stage, don’t hesitate to move on. Another band is rockin’ it just a few minutes away.

While great music will feed your spirit throughout the weekend, you won’t be lacking for physical sustenance either. If the music was removed from Jazz Fest, it would still be a pretty damn good food festival. The plethora of food options are largely Southern-inspired with some international flavors thrown in the mix. You won’t find a corn dog at Jazz Fest, but you’ll find jambalaya, gumbo, po’ boys, crawfish, alligator pie, boudin balls and bread pudding.

There is very little turnover of food vendors from year to year, meaning the available choices are proven crowd-pleasers. While everyone has their favorites, dishes with especially large and vocal devotees include the pheasant, quail & andouille gumbo, soft shell crab po’ boy, cochon de lait po’ boy and crawfish Monica. In general, food is portioned and priced to allow you to do copious sampling throughout the weekend. Leave your diet at the gate. Indulge and enjoy.

A limited variety of alcoholic beverages is available. Beers of the standard light lager variety are sold throughout the site. For more discerning tastes, Pilsner Urquell and Blue Moon can be found near the Blues Tent and Gentilly Stage. Several booths sell wine and champagne. A few stands sell daiquiri-type drinks that come in colors that don’t occur in nature. Consume at your own risk.

The Post-Fest Party
If you intend to sample one of New Orleans’ well-known restaurants – and you should – make a reservation in advance. When Jazz Fest ends each day, the clubs fill up as festival performers descend on the city’s abundant music venues for evening gigs that continue well into the wee hours. If you have the stamina, you’ll have amazing options for an evening on the town. Some shows require you to purchase tickets in advance. The Jazz Fest Grids is a great resource for club listings.