By Karen Bradley – Director, Entice Travel
If you want to see New Orleans jazz legends and global superstars over two weekends on one fair ground, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival is for you.
New Orleans is considered by many to be the birthplace of jazz. When Duke Ellington and Mahalia Jackson appeared at the first New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in 1970, Producer, George Wein, handed Ms Jackson a microphone. She sang along with the band and joined the parade. And the spirit of Jazz Fest, as it is commonly referred to, was born.
Jazz Fest is an annual event held on the last weekend of April and the first weekend of May. As a jazz singer myself, this was one trip I had always dreamt of. I wasn’t going to let the fact that I was in a Moon Boot (bunion surgery) get in the way. Getting to the Fair Ground and back is made easy via a shuttle bus from the city centre, with great historical commentary along the way.
For our travel group of four, back in 2016, Jazz Fest was like stepping into another world. We wandered the Fair Ground, drink in hand, watching passing parades of colourfully dressed performers, but who to see first? There’s not just jazz but gospel, blues, zydeco, folk, pop and rock on more than 12 stages and within tents.
Jazz greats included Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter, Dr John, Ellis Marsalis (who sadly passed away in 2020), Irma Thomas as well as New Orleans legend Trombone Shorty.
We visited the Gospel Tent, where the singers voices were so uplifting they almost blew the tent roof off! A drink stop then into a small, intimate tent to check out fabulous local Clarinetist and Vocalist, Doreen.
Onto the main stages to see Ricky Lee Jones, Van Morrison and Paul Simon. Other stars included, Pearl Jam, Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Janelle Monae and Elvis Costello (who we shared a lift with back at our hotel!). Too many more to list!
The headliner for 2016 was Stevie Wonder, but it was not to be. Here’s the thing I have to get on the table. You can pretty much guarantee that at some point over the two weekends, it’s going to bucket down. And did it ever – on the last day, to the point that camp chairs were floating around the racecourse! We sat in the stands in the hope the weather would hold for Stevie, but it didn’t. Such a shame too because it was the week his good friend, Prince, passed away and he had a special tribute set planned. I’m sure he was as disappointed as us. Still, that’s all part of the fun of outdoor festivals (and we did see him that night passing through our restaurant so that must count for something!).
Jazz Fest is not all about the music. It’s also a celebration of New Orleans heritage, culture, art and food. Jazz Fest food stalls as far as the eye can see, offering Southern Fried Chicken (to die for), Soft Shell Crab Po-Boys, Pecan Catfish, Battered Oysters (hmm), Crayfish Enchiladas and Jambalaya. And the ultimate Jazz Fest cool down treat, Mango Freeze.
At Jazz Fest days’ end, there’s time for a rest back at the Windsor Court Hotel. I can’t recommend this hotel highly enough with its 5-star service. It’s a haven of elegance and grace – French inspired suites with separate lounge areas, a fabulous restaurant and piano bar (yes, more music), huge oil paintings, antique furniture and exquisite floral arrangements. But we chose it for its quiet but close location, just a few blocks from the French Quarter. As the reviews say, ‘it doesn’t seem possible that this serene alcove exists in the same world as Bourbon Street.’
And that leads me to evenings, where the Downtown French Quarter comes alive. A stroll down Bourbon street is a must for first timers to New Orleans. Named after a royal family in France (and not, as you would think, after the amber coloured spirit), this neon lit street stretches for 13 blocks, decorative windows and doors flung open for the crowds, with jazz buskers a plenty. We watched a young boy tap dancing and further on around the corner, at the Hotel Monteleone, a singer and guitarist stepped out of their first-floor window onto the roof awning, microphone in hand, and performed for the passers-by, as it if was the most normal thing to do.
Because too much jazz is not enough, there are jazz bars galore to get your night fix. We loved The Spotted Cat on Frenchman Street, a small, casual affair with great local acts. The oldest club in New Orleans, Fritzel’s European Jazz Club, is a great trad jazz cocktail bar on Bourbon Street. Maple Leaf, in the Uptown Riverbend area is fun and laid back and hosts local world-class musicians every night of the week.
Our only oversight with so many jazz bars and large crowds, was that we didn’t book ahead. This is a must if you want to be guaranteed a seat, especially during Jazz Fest.
One place with no reservations is Preservation Hall, a legendary New Orleans institution in the heart of the French Quarter, where the world-famous Preservation Hall Jazz Band perform. Every night, people line up for this venue. It’s nothing fancy to look at with a small, plain room, a stage and seating area, but it lights up five times a night with hot, hour-long jazz sets. No alcohol is served, and children are welcome.
In between the two weekends of Jazz Fest, we experienced the diversity of New Orleans on a private driving tour, organised through Bespoke Experiences New Orleans. We learnt about the historic French Quarter (settled in 1789) and the opulent Garden District before stopping in at City Park, one of the largest urban parks in the nation, where we walked under beautiful oak trees that are well over 800 years old.
After a short stop at some great shoe and antique shops (love a tour guide that accommodates that!), and a bite to eat, we were driven to Evergreen Plantation, on Louisiana’s historic River Road. We loved exploring the Antebellum house (Gone with the Wind style), strolling through the gardens and being led down an amazing alley of Oak trees (known as oak allée), to arrive at a preserved community of 22 slave cabins (very sobering). These cabins were first lived in by slaves, then plantation worker during the Civil War, through emancipation, reconstruction and the Great Depression, until the 1950s when inhabitants were finally moved out.
On other free days, we cruised down the Mississippi River (onboard the old-fashioned Steamboat Natchez, enjoying a Creole-style buffet lunch and live jazz music) and explored the National World War II Museum.
Which brings me full circle back to jazz. The New Orleans Jazz Museum is also worth a visit. It displays amazing artifacts, including Louis Armstrong’s coronet and Fats Domino’s piano, and has free live jazz at 2pm daily.
Whatever corner you turn in New Orleans, jazz, liveliness and fun will be waiting for you. As the locals say, ‘Laissez les bon temps rouler, French for let the good times roll, our motto here in New Orleans.’
Jazz Fest Snapshot
Dates: 28th April to 7th May 2023
Venue: Fair Grounds Racecourse and Slots, 1751 Gentilly Blvd, New Orleans
Entry Cost: Starting from $470 for 7 days of jazz
Getting there: Fly direct to Dallas to connect to a short flight to New Orleans
Bookings: [email protected]
Phone: 02 6123 0500