New Orleans Jazz Fest – an Insider’s Guide
In this episode we’re going all in on Jazz Fest, y’all! We’ll explore the music, the food and the layout of the festival. I’ll give you the insider tips that come from nearly 30 years of attending. You’ll know what to bring, what to expect, how to create your own JazzFest plan, and everything else you need. I’ll also help you with things to do once you leave the festival grounds. And if for some crazy reason you can’t be here, we’ll help you enjoy a bit of Jazz Fest from wherever you are!
Officially, it’s called the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. It’s a 10-day festival of music, food, and crafts held at the New Orleans Fairgrounds in the Gentilly neighborhood. Jazz Fest takes place the last weekend of April and the first weekend of May. This year, in 2016, those dates are April 22-24th and April 28 – May1st.
Where to stay
I recommend staying in the French Quarter, the Central Business District or the Warehouse District. Basically, within walking distance of the Canal Street streetcar line and/or an easy cab ride to the festival.
French Quarter – Each of these has lots of local character.
Omni Royal Orleans
Westin Canal Place – easily the most corporate feeling of the hotels listed here. I included it because the rooms are large, the location is terrific, and many rooms have a view of the Mississippi River. This is also an excellent location if you are staying with kids.
Central Business District
Warehouse District (also known as the Arts District)
RV park in the Treme
Tickets to Jazz Fest
You have several options, but let’s cut to the chase. You want either single-day tickets or a WWOZ Brass Pass which gives you admission to all 10 days of the festival for $550. Basic one-day tickets are $75 at the gate. You can get them ahead of time for $65. Buy them online or in-person at the Smoothie King Center behind the Superdome. NOTE: you can only purchase Jazz First tickets at the Smoothie King Center prior to the festival. Ticket sales for the first weekend will be offered at that location until Thursday, April 21, 2016. Advances sales for the 2nd weekend will end on Wednesday, April 27, 2016.
If you want to explore the VIP ticket options, which I don’t recommend, you can find the information at www.nojazzfest.com/tickets. You can also find information about volunteering at Jazz Fest over at http://www.nojazzfest.com/info/volunteering/ (NOTE: the deadline to volunteer has passed for 2016).
Jazz Fest Toolkit Essentials
A key to enjoying the festival is knowing what to expect and what to bring with you. Here’s what you need when you walk out the door each day to head to Jazz Fest.
- Festival fairgrounds map
- Jazz Fest cubes – grid display of artists, by stage & time
- Jazz Fest app
- Comfortable shoes
- Credit card
- small backpack
- towel, sheet or bag chair
- charger & cables for your phone
- rain poncho
What not to bring. Click here for a list of things you cannot bring to the festival. For the most part, these are common sense (no drugs, alcohol or firearms), but there are some restrictions about the size of backpacks and tarps. If this is your fist Fest, be sure to review this list so you are not surprised at the entrance.
A couple overall tips about the music and the stages. Get out of your comfort zone. Try to see at least one artist on each stage. It’s probably not possible if you only go for a day, but definitely doable if you are at the Fest for 2 or 3 days. They each have their own feel and many are focused on a specific genre like traditional jazz or gospel. At a minimum spend some time at Fais-Do-Do, duck in the Gospel Tent, Go to the Jazz and Heritage stage. Really, try to see something at every stage. Every year I stumble upon something that is unexpected and delightful, even after nearly 30 years of festivals!
Here are several suggestions for each day of the festival. Pick 1 or 2 each day while you wandering around the festival grounds.
- Buckwheat Zydeco
Hot 8 Brass
- Kermit Ruffins
- the subdudes
- New Orleans Gospel Soul Children
Sat, April 23rd
- Anders Osborne
Big Sam’s Funky Nation
- Tab Benoit
Rosie Ledet & the Zydeco Playboys
- Cha Wa
Irma Thomas interview
Sun, April 24th
Better than Ezra
BeauSoleil avec Michael Doucet
Big Chief Monk Boudreaux and the Golden Eagles
Thu, April 28th
George Porter & the Runnin’ Pardners
- Sonny Landreth
Cyril Neville & Swamp Funk
Fri, April 29th
Dirty Dozen Bras Band
Shamarr Allen & the Underdogs
- John Boutté
Preservation Hall Brass Band
Honey Island Swamp Band
CJ Chenier and the Red Hot Louisiana Band
John Boutté interview
CJ Chenier interview
Sat, Apr 30th
- Paul Sanchez and the Rolling Road Show
Kermit Ruffins tribute to Louis Armstrong
Sunpie & the Louisiana Sunspots
Big Chief Bo Dollis & the Wild Magnolias
Sun, May 1st
- Ivan Neville’s Dumpstaphunk
Terrance Simien & the Zydeco Experience
- Marcia Ball
- Rockin’ Dopsie & the Zydeco Twisters
Jazz Fest Food Recommendations
- Natchitoches meat pies – small, fried pies containing ground pork & beef, crawfish or broccoli & cheese.
- Crawfish monica – crawfish tails in a rich, cheesy, spicy sauce mixed in with spiral pasta. A Jazz Fest tradition!
- Cochon de lait po-boy – Roasted pig on a po-boy. This is a good one if you or the little ones are not too adventurous.
- Vaucresson’s hot sausage – Vaucresson’s is the only original vendor from the first year of the festival, and that’s no accident. Vance Vaucresson continues his father’s tradition of serving up sausage po-boys at the fest.
- Roman Candy – Normally sold from a wooden cart pulled along the streets of New Orleans by a mule. A cheap and sweet taffy-like treat. At Jazz Fest you’ll find the cart not far from the back of the crowds gathered at the Gentilly stage, and close to another favorite and cheap treat….
- Plum Street Sno-Balls – there are two stands on the grounds. This is my favorite.
- Strawberry Lemonade
- Herbal Tea
- Crawfish bread – bread stuffed with crawfish and cheese. Need I say more?!
- Combo plate with crawfish sack, Oyster patties and Crawfish beignets
- Ya Ka Mein – is a beef broth based soup with noodles, a boiled egg, maybe a little chicken, some beef, lots of spices, green onions. It’s the kind of soup you’d get at a corner store in a foam cup. It is known as a hangover aid, and is popular outside of bars. Miss Linda normally sells this out of the back of a truck, but for Jazz Fest she has a booth. This is also a good dish to keep in mind if you get caught out at Jazz Fest during one of those rainy days when it can also get a little chilly. Relatively, I mean!
- Mango freeze
Jazz Fest is about exploring, creating your own path and taking in what you find. Have a plan, but don’t be married to it. Be open to new things – music and food. Get up and dance, talk to people, wander around. Visit the folklife area and the demonstrations, exhibits and interviews in the Grandstands. Stop and watch the Mardi Gras Indians parading across the festival grounds. When you’re not sure what to do next, stop at the nearest food booth and get something then head to either the Fais Do Do or the Jazz & Heritage Stage.
See the big acts if there is someone you really like, but go check out something or someone you’ve never heard of. Eat a lot and try new things. Mix in some water and tea or lemonade throughout the day. A cold beer is great in the heat, but if you pound them all day long you may regret it later.
The best moments at jazzFest are often the unexpected. The musicians you’ve never heard of, the new friends you make and the sights and food along the way. I’ve cautioned you about the big acts, but if there is a big artist you love, then by all means – go see them! Many of the best times we’ve had have been with friends, sitting among the masses and singing along to Jimmy Buffet or Elton John or Jerry Lee Lewis. This year, I’m looking forward to Stevie Wonder and Paul Simon.
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Until next time, laissez le bon temps rouler!