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New Orleans Jazz Fest

The best musical party on Earth

Story by Carl Abernathy December 29th, 2015

The date in January when the schedule for the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival is released is my fifth most anticipated day of the year. The top four, of course, are the Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday of the second weekend of jazz fest, which is when my friends and I always make the trek to the Crescent City.

Festival goers often battle sensory overload because there are so many great acts. Twelve stages compete for folks attention from 11 a.m. til 7 p.m. every day. I learned a long time ago, though, not worry about who you miss because just about every act at jazz fest is great.

I keep things simple. I love Bruce Springsteen, The Who, Eric Clapton, Lenny Kravitz and the other big-name acts that lure thousands to jazz fest. But I can see those superstars anywhere. I stick mainly to the jazz, blues and People’s Economy tents with occasional forays to the Fais Do-Do stage.

Jazz, blues, zydeco. Mostly local acts. I usually sit in the front row and, for the most part, I get to avoid the sun and the massive crowds at the main stages … except when I want to sample some of the best food at any festival in the world.

James Andrews

Jazz Greats

Trumpeter James Andrews, Trombone Shorty’s brother, is one of the most dynamic performers I’ve ever seen. Security guards have no chance keeping listeners in their seats once Andrews heats up. I was lucky enough to see Pete Fountain charming the crowd at the People’s Economy tent in 2013. Turns out it was his last public performance ever. After Fountain’s set, I scurried over to the jazz tent so I could get a good seat to see vibraphone legend Roy Ayers. Good decision. He was great.

Roy Ayers
Chris Thomas King

The Blues

The blues tent at jazz fest just might be my favorite place on Earth. I’ve never seen a bad show there. How can you go wrong with folks such as Chicago blues great Buddy Guy, South Carolina bluesman Drink Small and New Orleans bluesman Guitar Slim Jr.?
Buddy Guy
Drink Small
Lillian Boutté

Local Legends

My favorite part of jazz fest is always listening to the locals. Some, like Aaron Neville, are famous. Others such as Little Freddie King, Wanda Rouzan, Tab Benoit, Shamarr Allen, Big Freedia, The Soul Rebels, and Big Al Carson have moderate fan bases outside of Louisiana, but they’re kings and queens in NOLA.

Little Freddie King
Wanda Rouzan
Tab Benoit
Shamarr Allen
Big Freedia and the Soul Rebels Brass Band
Milton Vanicor
Aaron Neville
Big Al Carson
Roots of Music

The kids

New Orleans musicians start young. The Roots of Music, a foundation that nurtures both musical talents and academic aspirations, is especially cool. Wander the grounds at jazz fest and you’ll find youngsters leading bands, accompanying stars and wowing audiences.

Bluesman Kenny Neal and his grandson

The passion

I’ve seen many of the musicians at jazz fest perform elsewhere. Almost without exception, they seem to play and sing better when they’re at the festival. Jazz fest is like their Super Bowl, and they all win.

Rosie Ledet
Robert Bilbo Walker
James Cotton
Davina and the Vagabonds
Delfeayo Marsalis
Ashlin Parker
John Boutté
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Cyril Neville
Delfeayo Marsalis Band
Roger Lewis
Dr. Michael White and Gregg Stafford with the Tuxedo Brass Band

Good times

Everyone seems to have fun at jazz fest, from the peanut vendors to the People’s Economy tent dancers and the buskers just outside the gates.

Kerry Brown
Ironing Board Sam
Percy "Dinky" Ellis

The pageantry

Flaming drum sticks, second lines, funky outfits and hats. Fans and performers get into the spirit of the festival.

Cecile McLorin Salvant

After Hours

The party’s just starting when the festival ends for the day. The city’s finest musicians head to clubs around town to perform until the wee hours.

Footnote: concert photographer, racetrack, travel, clarinet, trumpet, trombone, brass bands