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A New Orleans Jazz Fest Guide

 
 
 

“Losing Your Fest Virginity”:

Friendly Suggestions For Optimizing Your “Social and Pleasure” Experience

At Your First New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival

 

This guide authored in part by Henry W. (Hank) Jones, III of Austin, Texas and in part by Allen R. Grogan

planning and expectations

arrange hotel and plane ahead:  this is one of NOLA’s three holy seasons, with resulting doubled hotel rates, fewer available flights, and few seats via frequent flyer points

expect good karma:  45 years running, hot sun, beer, people from all over the world gathered closely together (especially in front of the stages), and there’s never been a fistfight

expect varied flavors:  “Jazz Fest” is a misnomer:  the stages always offer varying styles of music; your choices include name-brand headliners from diverse genres (rock, blues, RnB, jazz, world music, gospel, etc.)

stage configuration

there are about a dozen stages at Jazz Fest, all going simultaneously from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.  most of the bands at the larger stages play sets of 50 to 90 minutes.  at some stages like the Gospel Tent, the sets are shorter, e.g. 35 to 40 minutes.  a single ticket buys you admission for the entire day to all stages for $50 to $55 in advance (depending on when you buy) or $70 at the gate.  names of stages below are accurate for 2013; names and sponsorship of stages change somewhat from year to year. 

A.  The outdoor stages. 

sit on grass or dirt, bring folding chairs, bring blankets, or (what one of the authors does) bring small, portable extremely lightweight backpacking stools, so you can always be on the move easily to head to another stage.  no shade, so bring sunscreen & hats.  the outdoor stages consist of the following:

1.  Acura stage  

2.  Gentilly stage

these are the two biggest stages, at opposite ends of the fairgrounds.  large grassy areas.  can get very crowded, especially in late afternoon when maybe 25,000 to 30,000 people are attracted to each of these stages to see the biggest names of the day.  the national headline acts (in recent years artists such as Bruce Springsteen, Santana, Pearl Jam, Van Morrison, Foo Fighters, B.B. King, Al Green, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, Lenny Kravitz, Bonnie Raitt, Steve Winwood, Counting Crows, Bob Dylan, Crosby Stills & Nash, Stevie Wonder, Elvis Costello) and the biggest of the Nawlins acts (e.g., Dr. John, Trombone Shorty, the Nevilles, the Funky Meters) will usually play the Acura stage sometime after 3.  at around the same time, the other big stage will be hosting name R&B bands capable of entertaining a large crowd (e.g., Marcia Ball, Irma Thomas, Koko Taylor, Keb Mo) or local bands known to put on great live shows that get the crowd energized (e.g, the Radiators, Cowboy Mouth, Buckwheat Zydeco, the Rebirth Brass Band) or maybe a jam band with a dedicated following (e.g., Phish, Gov't Mule, Widespread Panic, String Cheese Incident, Galactic).   

3.  Congo Square stage

african, caribbean, reggae, world beat, often featuring very big name acts from this genre in the late afternoon (e.g., Femi Anikulapo-Kuti, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Angelique Kidjo, Johnny Clegg, Steel Pulse) and U.S. jazz and R&B stars (e.g., Wynton Marsalis, Jeffrey Osbourne, the O’Jays, Macy Gray)

4.  Sheraton Fais Do Do stage

traditional Cajun/Zydeco/Louisiana music.  lots of dancing in the audience here.

5.  Jazz and Heritage stage

new in 2005, this replaced what used to be a Native American stage.  there are always brass band and Mardis Gras Indian parades at various times of the day around the fairgrounds, but beginning in 2005 this stage became the stationary focal point of that activity.

B.  The tents

these are big circus type tents, shaded from the sun, with folding chairs set up inside in rows.  good place to go when you want to get out of the sun for a while, but ventilation is minimal so these can get stuffy. 

6.  Gospel Tent

awesome array of gospel music, most by bands you’ve never heard of.  it rocks.  don’t miss it.

7.  WWOZ Jazz Tent

full range of jazz music, old and new, but leaning more toward modern jazz. in recent years fest-goers heard Sonny Rollins, Ron Carter, Herbie Hancock, Max Roach, Ramsey Lewis, Dave Brubeck, Elvin Jones, Ornette Coleman, the Crusaders and Wayne Shorter, as well as local favorites like Nicolas Payton, Irvin Mayfield, Kermit Ruffins and various members / generations of the Marsalis family.  

8.  Economy Hall Tent presented by People's Health

jazz, heavily leaning toward traditional New Orleans jazz in all of its forms – brass bands, big bands, small combos, Dixieland, etc.  feelgood music.

9.  Blues Tent

this was an outdoor stage until 2002, when the organizers moved
it to a tent, a controversial decision among many fest fanatics,
who have lobbied, thus far unsuccessfully, to have it changed
back to an open sky venue. mostly electric blues, old and new,
with styles ranging from Chicago to Mississippi Delta to Nawlins to
those vying as contenders to the Stevie Ray Vaughn / Jimi Hendrix
legacy. here you’ll see acts like Etta James, Buddy Guy, Robert
Cray, Marva Wright and The Derek Trucks Band.

10.  Kids’ Tent

various acts geared to young ones. 

C.  The grandstand

remember, the fest is held at what is usually a horse racing track.  so although the crowds are mostly out on the open fields, there is also an air conditioned grandstand.  a lot of people never make it there, but it has several things to offer, including art, photography and cooking exhibits and demonstrations.  and some music:

11.  Allison Miner Music Heritage Lagniappe stage  

in an outdoor courtyard just behind the grandstand. has folding
chairs in place. can get hot (you’re surrounded by cement that
reflects the sun), but some of the chairs are shaded. modest
stage that a lot of people never visit.

your day at the fest

one of the great things about Jazz Fest is seeing new acts, so expand your horizons; don’t park yourself in front of one stage with the big name acts you’re familiar with, don’t plan out every minute – check out bands you’ve never heard of, drop by the Gospel tent any time, let serendipity rule at least part of the time and you may find your best musical experience in an unexpected quarter.  while most of the crowd is fighting for position at one of the big stages to see a headliner, you could be having a great time experiencing new music at one of the smaller stages.  Offbeat magazine (available locally for free) always has a special Jazz Fest issue with summary reviews of every band playing, and the New Orleans Times Picayune (local N.O. newspaper) has a section every morning on bands that they think could be the highlights of the day, often local jazz or Louisiana bands that may be unfamiliar to you – check em out. 

expect to change your biorhythms, almost to vampire time:  gates open at 11 a.m. and the fun at the fest itself stops at 7 p.m.; since many folks then go home, shower, go out to supper, then hit a nightclub or two, and maybe a bar, it’s stay up way late, sleep in late, and get your first food of the day only upon arriving back at Fest

expect to eat well:  at the fest, the portable kitchens from local restaurants make great chow, despite the temporary, public venue – they’ve been doing it for years, honey.  you can try elegant, satisfying regional specialties that you’d never get at a public fairgrounds at another town

what to eat?:  this is a religious issue, but the food is awesome.  several dozen food booths, offering unbelievably good food at great prices.  a sampling:  gumbo made with pheasant & quail & andouille, shrimp creole, muffulettas, po-boys (take your pick of crawfish sausage, hot sausage, turkey andouille, fried osyters, soft shell crab, alligator), crawfish cakes, boudin, alligator pie, crabmeat stuffed shrimp, fried green tomatoes, boiled crawfish, red beans & rice, shrimp etouffee, smothered okra, creole stuffed crab, fried eggplant w/ shrimp and tasso sauce, crawfish monica, gator w/ fried jalapeños and onions, ribs, sweet potato pie, lots more. most of the main dishes are available in small or large sizes for $6 to $7, with some dishes at $8 to $10 and some combo plates at $12 to $13. 

drink early and often:  it’s warm, OK actually usually quite hot and humid, so you gotta double up your fluids, particularly if you’re not experienced in this climate; that’s why everybody gets those snow cones, mint tea, strawberry lemonade and, yes, beers, sodas and waters; and bring the sunscreen, hats (best broad-brimmed or you may become a redneck), sunglasses and bandanas, or you’ll wish you had.  dress for hot humid weather (shorts, loose pants, t-shirts or Hawaiian shirts, etc.), but also be prepared for thunderstorms – hasn’t happened often, but that time of year in N.O. it’s a possibility.  travel light – at most a fanny pack or small backpack, so that moving from stage to stage is easy.   if you’re planning on hitting the clubs at night (highly recommended), then pace yourself – avoid beer during the day, stick with water – multiple beers in the hot sun and you’ll be wasted by day’s end. 

splitting up and hooking back up:  friends separating to catch the disparate acts they prefer and re-uniting is easy, and it’s necessary, given the rich banquet of simultaneous performances scattered across the grounds; favorite techniques for finding one’s posse again, despite the crowds, include: (a) one talented member of your tribe building in advance, schlepping to NOLA, and carrying on the grounds a custom, tall, skinny (so as to not block others’ view of the stage), personalized, usually funky, call-it-art “totem” or “fest pole” (check out the crowd scene fotos from some of the websites referenced below), (b) “staking out” a plot in front of a particular stage with blankets (and preferably totem) and taking turns occupying this “home spot” (though this technique is criticized by many as unfair to other fans), (c) designating a pre-arranged meeting place at some appointed time (e.g., as a fall-back, at 7 p.m., when the music stops, since unexpected pleasures and diversions may keep friends from honoring their other, previously planned, best-laid-plans rendezvous) – most popular is “by the flagpole” at the center of the fairgrounds, but because it’s the most popular, you may want to avoid the mobs and choose another.

dialect:  “where ya at?” is the NOLA idiom asking after your current well-being; “yeah you right” is the appropriate local acknowledgement to this greeting and a conversation catalyst

try something new, dance-wise:  want to learn to Cajun waltz, or, for the funkified brave athletic soul, even zydeco (a highly energetic syncopated dance from southwest Louisiana)?:  no problem; go the Fair Dos-Dos stage, where the traditions are (a) just stand by the edge of the dirt dance floor, smile and wait, since that means “I’d like to dance, but don’t have a partner at the moment; please ask me”, or (b) just ask anybody, tell ‘em you’re a novice, and ask for coaching; teaching the newbies is an honored, friendly tradition among Cajun and zydeco dancers

join a sacred fertility ritual:  the watermelon thing happens in the latter part of the day on Sunday (5-ish, more or less), at the Fais Dos-Dos stage, usually right after the next to the last act of the day finishes, with the needed secret sacramental material smuggled in every year by a particular priest of this tradition; we won’t spoil the surprise here

local transportation:  Fest parking gets denser every year; it’s easy to get a cab to the Fest, and catching a cab back to town during most of the day is not a big effort, but it can be a longer wait from the Fest if you’re leaving at the very end of the day, after the last notes have been played; the Fest shuttle buses from downtown are cheap and efficient, and get you right onto the fairgrounds without having to wait in line and they’ll take you back into town after the Fest, too.  in terms of infrastructure, this sometimes feels like a third world city, and it was that way even pre-Katrina, so expect some lack of speed and precision, and beat-up cabs

evening activities after the fest

for supper you can eat well and inexpensively at the fairgrounds before you leave in the late afternoon or early evening.  alternatively, the city is one of the best in the world for restaurants, particularly for traditional creole/cajun or newer fusions with creole influences on french/continental fare (or is it the other way around?)  if you want a table at one of the great or well-known places, make reservations weeks or even months in advance.  some of the best are Bayona, Brigtsen’s, Clancy’s and Upperline.  old classics with great creole food and service include Arnaud’s, Antoine’s, Brennan’s and Galatoire (some of these have been in business for 75 years or more).  Emeril Lagasse operates several eateries here and Paul Prudhomme still runs K-Paul’s.   the overall number of restaurants open in the city is greater than before Katrina; check The New Orleans Menu for reviews and a comprehensive list of all dining establishments.  in deference to others, allow time to shower between the fest and supper – you will be ripe by day’s end.  without dinner reservations, expect no available tables or long waits at most upscale restaurants – this is one of the most crowded tourist seasons in the city.  if you haven’t planned ahead, don’t despair – you can get decent food at some of the better bars / nightclubs in town, like Cooter Brown’s or the Rock N Bowl.  

which nightclubs?:  this is always a challenge; check which bands are where which night (the best source is JazzFest Grids), interrogate your concierge if you got one, and then just experiment and go for it.  you can walk into most clubs without advance tickets; a few clubs or auditoriums featuring big name national acts (Dr. John, the Neville Brothers, jam bands like Govt Mule, The Dead, The String Cheese Incident, etc.) do sell advance tickets via Ticketmaster or Ticketweb or the individual club box office and sometimes these sell out, but generally these are also acts you can see in your home town when they’re on tour, so why see them in N.O.?  there’s great music at multiple locations every night; no need to plan ahead unless you have your heart set on seeing a particular band.  recognize that new orleans is a late night party town with a laissez faire attitude toward the clock; at a few places acts may not go on until 2 or 3 a.m., and if a club says a band will go on at 10 p.m. don’t be surprised if it’s 11 or 11:30 p.m. or even later before they take the stage.   some of the traditional nominees for a uniquely NOLA experience include:

Maple Leaf – uptown, near Tulane, serviced by the cablecar for mellow transport, with Carrollton Station another club nearby

Rock N Bowl – ever seen a combo working bowling lane and small, hot, jumping band venue with dance floor, especially for zydeco?  (one of the authors of this guide lost his zydeco virginity dancing till 2:45 a.m. there, wringing out his sweat-soaked blue jeans for 10 minutes after returning to the hotel) (in mid-town, so allocate some transit time to and from)

Tipitina’s – uptown at the corner of Napoleon Avenue and Tchoupitoulas Street.  during Jazz Fest, Tips hosts its own "Fess Jazztival" concert series. rub the statue head of legendary pianist Dr. Longhair (“Fess”) for good luck

Snake N Jakes Christmas Club Lounge – no live music, a dark, dive hole-in-the-wall, but great jukebox and a local hangout for musicians.  good place to stop for a last drink at 3 or 4 a.m. before rolling back to the hotel for some shut-eye.  have been told that if you’re naked you drink free, but can’t confirm this from firsthand experience.  

Plenty of others

to learn more

studying up?:  for the curious and research-nerdly, there are easy resources to learn more in advance:

Swag's Jazzfest FAQ: a much more detailed and organized guide than this effort

JazzFest Grids: the best guide to all the bands playing at the clubs during Jazz Fest

Offbeat Magazine:  the monthly, locally-free “music and other happenings” magazine of NOLA, with good articles about local bands, music trends, venues, food, politics, and more (once you get hooked on NOLA, considering subscribing to the print version)

Gambit Weekly: another local publication with articles and information on arts and entertainment in the city

WWOZ 90.7 FM New Orleans:  if you listen to remote radio stations via the ‘net, this is the one:  non-commercial, diverse, NOLA, Louisiana, roots music

web sites now carry good fotos and articles from past/recent fests:  start with the official site of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival

for the best historical and visual view, ask your local library for (get em to get it inter-library loan, even – trust us, it’s worth it), the 20-or-so year coffeetable, mainly fotos (just b&w) New Orleans Jazz Fest: A Pictorial History by Michael P. Smith; you’ll be amazed by its humble original roots and the mighty, mighty acts that’ve played and paid dues here (and these are better images for your stay-back-at-home family to have, than you doing the dirty boogie while semi-clad and standing on a balcony railing on Bourbon Street, bro’)

for music shopping, check out The Louisiana Music Factory online or their store in the French Quarter, near The House Of Blues, just off Jackson Square

if you’re into reading and/or fiction, amazon.com carries a little known anthology called, appropriately, New Orleans Stories; one is by some cat named Louis Armstrong.  and Jazz Fest Memories by Michael P. Smith and the late Allison Miner, a fest volunteer since the early days and jazz archivist at Tulane University prior to her untimely death (the Allison Miner stage in the racetrack grandstands is in her memory).  a more recent addition to the genre is The Incomplete, Year-by-Year, Selectively Quirky Prime Facts Edition of the History of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival

while you are in town

day-tripping?:  if you plan to venture out of town to explore the region, choices include:

a great “twofer”:  arrive one day before the first weekend of Fest, and go to Lafayette for LA’s annual French culture Festival International de Louisiane, where the music portion starts around 5 p.m. that Thursday, with two or three free music stages; if you do this trip, spend the night at a motel up there, and wait till Friday morning to drive back to NOLA – the roads between Lafayette and New Orleans are pitch black and you’re likely to encounter inebriated drivers navigating them late at night.  there are legendary local nightclubs in this area of Louisiana (the original caldrons of zydeco music and dance, little shacks in which this music was born and evolved), but be aware that the ranks of these clubs are dwindling fast; many of the classic venues have shuttered their doors.  as of this writing, El Sido's Zydeco and Blues Club in Lafayette and Slim's Y-Ki-Ki in Opelousas are believed to still be open on some Friday and Saturday nights, and the former Richard's Club in Lawtell, just west of Opelousas, has reopened as The Zydeco Hall of Fame.

the plantation trips are traditional, arguably less cool (what your elderly aunt wants to do), but still interesting

for the art-oriented, an hour and a half east on I-10 at Ocean Springs, Miss. is the museum honoring (only) homie Walter Anderson, the late painter who’s America’s blend of Van Gogh (yes, mental differences can enable art) and Gaugin (let’s get primitive, though he lived and painted the critters and flora on the outer banks islands).  if you make this journey, a possibility on the way to or fro is to spend a couple of hours canoeing along one of the small rivers in Mississippi, a great way to laze away part of a morning or afternoon.  Try Wolf River Canoes.

following up the art theme, the city of New Orleans itself is home to two relatively new institutions, the Ogden Museum of Southern Art and the Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden.  the Ogden Museum, in a new five-story facility that opened in 2003, houses the collection of local businessman Roger Ogden, comprising the largest and most comprehensive collection of Southern art in the world.  the Besthoff Sculpture Garden (adjacent to the New Orleans Museum of Art) has a world class collection of fifty major works spread over five landscaped acres with winding footpaths and lagoons.

swamp tours are much more intriguing than you might think, at least the good ones.  see gators and thousands of water fowl in beautiful natural habitat.  if you’ve never explored swampland in louisiana, it probably is not at all the way you picture it.  try to find someone that will rent you a canoe or that takes out groups of 4 or 5 in a small boat with a quiet motor; avoid the big tours that use noisy high speed airboats or pack 20 or 30 onto a water “bus.”  if you’re in Lafayette, De La Houssaye’s Swamp Tours, ask for Marcus, is a good choice.  closer to Nawlins, have heard good things about, but cannot personally vouch for, Honey Island Swamp Tours, ask for Dr. Paul Wagner; or Earl’s Bar and Canoe Rentals in Marrero 504-689-3271.  

“see you next year!”

 

 
 

 
Copyright © 2014 Allen R. Grogan. All rights reserved