The Woodstock generation that invented music festivals has also outgrown them. Weekend electronic dance marathons? Pass. Stale pretzels and flat beer between metal blasts in a barren field? Pass. A three-day classic rock revue with peace, love and no chairs? Hard pass.
There is one, however, that is made for grownup music lovers and, appropriately enough, it's in the Big Easy.
The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival is the answer for those 50 and older who want a multiday musical getaway without the boot camp hardships.
The annual event, in its 49th year, takes place across two weekends, this year April 27-29 and May 3-6, at New Orleans’ Fair Grounds Race Course, 10 minutes from the French Quarter. The agenda: Laissez les bons temps rouler.
Music will be flowing simultaneously from a dozen stages, and we're talking all kinds of music. Don’t let the festival name fool you. While contemporary and traditional jazz play a pivotal role, every genre that’s ever been stirred into the city’s gumbo of sound is represented, including blues, R&B, Cajun, zydeco, gospel, folk, Latin, rock, rap, bluegrass, Afro-Caribbean, country and pop.
And while this year’s lineup beckons youth with hot names like Khalid, Common and Cage the Elephant, it’s top-heavy with veterans — from Rod Stewart, Sting and Lionel Richie to Sheryl Crow, Bonnie Raitt, Smokey Robinson and the Steve Miller Band. Among those making their Jazz Fest debut are Aerosmith, Jack White, David Byrne and Beck.
Headliners are bait for first-timers (and what great bait they are!). But regulars realize that the treasures lie in regional offerings, whether it’s horn ace and showman Trombone Shorty, jazz patriarch Ellis Marsalis, Cajun group Beausoleil or scores of gospel choirs, brass bands and Mardi Gras Indian tribes. In all, 5,000 musicians will play, including acts from Gambia, Honduras and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Leslie Odom Jr., first to play Aaron Burr in the Broadway hit Hamilton, is on the bill, as is tap dancer Savion Glover, on a customized wooden floor.
Music is only one facet of Jazz Fest’s appeal. Dozens of food booths serve examples of the city’s finest cuisine: crawfish étouffée, pecan catfish meuniere, sausage and jalapeño bread, Cajun duck po'boy, alligator pie, Creole filé gumbo, shrimp and grits, spinach artichoke casserole and jambalaya.
Crave a souvenir? Jazz Fest upstages the typical concert merch stand with a tent of goods (shirts, skirts, aprons, posters, umbrellas, postcards) and devotes sizable areas for juried shows of contemporary crafts, Louisiana folk art and an African marketplace.
And finally, there's the comfort factor. Shuttles drop fans at the front gate. The gospel, blues, jazz and Economy Hall (ragtime, Dixieland) stages are under enormous tents with seating. Bleachers can be found flanking other popular stages. Picnic tables are near some concessions. The grandstand has two stages (with ample seating) for live shows, cooking demonstrations and artist interviews.
“We’re the one festival for grownups,” says Jazz Fest producer Quint Davis. “The three pillars to the festival are music, art and food. If all the music went away, people would still come to eat that food. There are no funnel cakes here. We’ve got crawfish strudel, trout Baquet and crabmeat beignets. Don’t eat for a day and a half before you come.”
Another big plus: The fest runs daily from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., leaving evenings open for New Orleans dining and clubs.
“New Orleans at night is a big part of the experience,” Davis says. “You leave our Funkolympics and there are 40 or 50 clubs waiting.”
The 2018 festival will observe the city’s tricentennial with a stage and elaborate program incorporating musical strains that have shaped the city’s sounds. And musicians will honor the life of rock ’n’ roll pioneer Fats Domino, who died in October.
“The loss of Fats is biblical,” Davis says. “He’s our Elvis Presley. He never left home. Two people from New Orleans changed music all over the world: Louis Armstrong and Fats. When he died, there was a second line to his house but no funeral and no tribute concert. We’re planning a major tribute.”
Davis has been with Jazz Fest since its 1970 kickoff, when roughly 600 musicians, including Mahalia Jackson, Duke Ellington, Pete Fountain, Al Hirt and Fats Domino, played for 350 people.
These days, with an average attendance of more than 400,000, Jazz Fest “has become the third-largest city in Louisiana,” Davis says, noting that the festival has its own post office and unique postmark. “It started out celebrating New Orleans culture. Now it is New Orleans culture.”
How to Do Jazz Fest
- Book now. Start at the official Jazz Fest website (nojazzfest.com) for tickets, hotel discounts and information on travel packages and VIP passes. Fest Heads reserve months ahead, so rooms in the Quarter and areas convenient to shuttle buses sell out first. Single-day tickets are $65 in advance and $80 at the gate. Advance sales end April 26 for the first weekend, May 2 for the second. Tickets also are available at ticketmaster.com and by calling 800-745-3000.
- Order a copy of Offbeat magazine’s Jazz Fest Bible 2018 (offbeat.com) or pick one up as soon as you hit town. The annual guide is loaded with data on performers, vendors and club schedules. Likewise, check out Jazz Fest’s daily stage lineups, aka “the cubes,” and plot your itinerary. You’ll never stick to it, but it’s wise to have a rough plan.
- Bring sunscreen, a rain poncho (a buck or two in most drugstores) and comfy walking shoes. Travel light. You can bring small backpacks, collapsible chairs and little umbrellas but no large items (tents, wagons, bikes); check the website for rules.
- If you drive to the Fair Grounds, finding parking is tough, and you may walk several blocks. The shuttle buses are painless: $20 round trip from either the Sheraton or Steamboat Natches Dock, both downtown. Your feet will thank you.
- Pace yourself. You can’t chase down every great act without feeling like a pinball. If you need to chill for a spell, grab a slice of peach cobbler and plop down in the gospel tent for roof-raising, soul-soothing deliverance.
- Rather than squeezing in with the masses to see a hit maker you grew up with, explore the rich and often eccentric homegrown talent on smaller stages. If you exit without hearing "Iko Iko" and "Hey Pocky A-Way" at least three times, you’ve missed Jazz Fest.
- Insider tip: On the first weekend, make an effort to catch “Piano Prince of New Orleans” Davell Crawford, contemporary blues singer-guitarist Samantha Fish, the funk/bebop-influenced Dirty Dozen Brass Band, slide guitar bluesman Sonny Landreth, Cajun/Creole band Pine Leaf Boys, zydeco singer-songwriter Terrance Simien, jazz trumpeter Nicholas Payton, gospel’s show-stopping Electrifying Crown Seekers, and Dwayne Dopsie & the Zydeco Hellraisers. On the second weekend, see blues sensation John Mooney & Bluesiana, boogie-woogie and swamp blues singer-pianist Marcia Ball, jazz singer Germaine Bazzle, blues folkie Ruthie Foster, Tremé singer-trumpeter James “Satchmo of the Ghetto” Andrews, funk kings Jupiter and Okwess, bluesman Walter Trout, jazz/R&B singer John Boutté and gospel group the Zion Harmonizers.