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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.