From its humble beginnings in 1970 to the pre-pandemic spring of 2019, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival enjoyed an uninterrupted 50-year win streak, growing in leaps and bounds along the way, from total attendance of 350 to daily attendance as high as 160,000.
Not even Hurricane Katrina could throw Jazz Fest off track. At the 2006 edition, a mere eight months after that tragedy, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Herbie Hancock, and Paul Simon joined local legends the Meters and Allen Toussaint at the festival, providing a considerable boost to New Orleans in the thick of its recovery process. Current estimates of the festival’s annual economic impact on the city run north of $400 million.
In 2020, Jazz Fest had to hit pause for the first time in five decades. COVID scuttled the festival that year, and attempts at relaunching it failed in the spring and fall of 2021. Finally, Jazz Fest returned at its traditional time in 2022: the last weekend of April and the first weekend of May. Accompanying the relaunch was an excellent documentary, Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story, which won the 2023 Grammy Award for Best Music Film. Jazz Fest is back in action this year from 28-30 April and 4-7 May. Many of this year’s performers were initially booked for 2020 and 2021 and are only now, finally, coming to play.
The enormous promoter AEG — which also produces Coachella, Firefly, and other huge festivals — has been involved with Jazz Fest since 2004. Major artists that you would see in stadiums or at other gigantic festivals regularly appear at Jazz Fest. Plus, like other large festivals, corporations sponsor Jazz Fest, with Shell serving as the festival’s longtime presenting sponsor.
That said, Jazz Fest is still unlike any other music festival. Despite the big names from out-of-town, more than three-quarters of the performers are local to Louisiana. Though AEG provides booking muscle, the driving force is the non-profit that has run the festival from the beginning, the Jazz & Heritage Foundation. Every year, the Foundation grants about a million dollars to other local organizations and spends millions more on educational and other programs, from free music lessons and instruments to music production training. Perhaps the Foundation’s other crown jewel, which complements the Festival beautifully, is its commercial-free radio station, WWOZ 90.7 FM, beloved worldwide as the streaming standard-bearer for New Orleans music.
Unlike some festivals, Jazz Fest makes no attempt to ensure attendees can see all (or even most) of the performers on any given day. At any moment, music emanates from many (if not most) of the festival’s dozen stages. There are two main stages for the biggest acts (Festival and Gentilly) plus stages (or tents) for gospel, blues, jazz, traditional New Orleans jazz, cajun and zydeco, brass band, world, and children’s music, among other genres. Though the smaller stages feature lesser-known acts with few exceptions, they provide the opportunity to experience the local, relatively unknown talent that frequently gives better-known acts a run for their money. Find out where and when everything’s happening by looking at the Jazz Fest cubes. For local intel on which lesser-known, Louisiana-based acts are the best to catch, look at Gambit, Offbeat, and the Times-Picayune.
Getting the most out of being at the Festival requires careful strategy; fans often face a Hobson’s choice. For example, at the 2006 Festival, just months after Hurricane Katrina, sets from Bruce Springsteen’s Seeger Sessions Band and the reunited Meters took place simultaneously. But occasionally, it’s possible to avoid a Hobson’s choice by seeing an artist at a club in the evening, after the Festival ends for the day.
Jazz Fest is unusual because it doesn’t stretch into the prime nighttime hours, leaving plenty of room for the restaurants and clubs in New Orleans to attract those who haven’t had enough food or music between 11:00 am and 7:00 pm. While the Jazz Fest cubes describe what happens at the festival, find what the clubs offer each evening in OffBeat magazine or on the Jazzfest Grids, including shows before the first weekend, after the second weekend, and during the days in between the Festival’s two weekends.
Each year, Jazz Fest features music and culture from another place. This year, it’s Puerto Rico, and a dozen Puerto Rican acts are playing the Festival, marked on the cubes by the Puerto Rican flag.
First-time Jazz Fest performer and worldwide pop star Lizzo anchors Friday, 28 April, this year’s opening day. Joining her at the top of the bill are Robert Plant & Alison Krauss, whose American roots repertoire neatly fits the Jazz Fest vibe (they also played the Festival in 2008 after releasing their first album together). Gospel and soul legend Mavis Staples returns to Jazz Fest for the ninth time at age 83. Wu-Tang Clan make their Jazz Fest debut, accompanied by New Orleans brass band the Soul Rebels, who have performed at the Festival more than two dozen times and were paired with Nas in 2017. Unfortunately, all four of those exciting artists are playing on different stages at roughly the same time at the end of the day.
Perhaps the best bet is seeing Wu-Tang Clan with the Soul Rebels deliver a performance that almost certainly will happen anywhere but this festival. Two New Orleans acts who have won national reputations in recent years, Big Freedia and Tank and the Bangas, take the stage on Friday earlier in the day, and thankfully, they don’t overlap. During part of the time Big Freedia is on stage, on another stage, the Festival travels back into New Orleans R&B history by more than five decades with its Classic Recording Revue featuring the Dixie Cups (“Iko Iko”), Clarence “Frogman” Henry (“Ain’t Got No Home”), Wanda Rouzan, and Al Johnson (“Carnival Time”). It’s possible to catch a bit of the Classic Recording Revue before seeing most or all of Big Freedia’s set.
On Saturday, the reigning pop star slot is filled by Ed Sheeran, and Steve Miller is that day’s classic rock star with serious roots credentials. Also playing the blues on Saturday are former young guns Taj Mahal and Sonny Landreth, who are now elder statesmen, and up-and-comers Christone “Kingfish” Ingram and Samantha Fish. R&B star Jazmine Sullivan returns for the first time since 2016 on the strength of her recent hit Heaux Tales, and African superstar Angelique Kidjo returns to the Festival for the fifth time. The top local talent on day two includes Irma Thomas (“The Soul Queen of New Orleans”), the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, and Meters guitarist Leo Nocentelli, whose lost 1971 solo album garnered widespread praise when it was finally released in 2021. Suggested lineup: Leo Nocentelli, Irma Thomas, the last portion of Taj Mahal, and finally, Steve Miller.
Following four previous appearances, Tedeschi Trucks Band headline day three, touring behind their recent, impressive four-album set, I Am The Moon. They’ll continue a long tradition of prominent jam bands playing Jazz Fest, including (in past years) Phish, Widespread Panic, the Allman Brothers, the String Cheese Incident, and Gov’t Mule. Current New Orleans funk kings Dumpstaphunk, a band born at Jazz Fest and led by Aaron Neville’s son Ivan, also operates within the jam band tradition. Other local highlights on Sunday include percussionist Cyril Neville of the Meters and the Neville Brothers, Jon Cleary & the Absolute Monster Gentlemen, the Rebirth Brass Band, and pianist Davell Crawford. That day also features roots rockers Los Lobos, blues guitarist Gary Clark Jr., R&B singer Jill Scott (who’s returning to the Festival for the first time in a decade), and desert blues giant Mdou Moctar. Suggested lineup: Mdou Moctar, Dumpstaphunk, Cyril Neville, Rebirth Brass Band, Tedeschi Trucks Band.
Weekend two starts Thursday, 4 May, with Jazz Fest veteran Santana, who is making his 14th appearance. Though he has lived in Chicago for decades, the world’s greatest living bluesman, 86-year-old Buddy Guy, is a Louisiana native, and he first played at the Festival in 1979. This will be his 18th Jazz Fest gig, and he has said he will continue to play the Festival as long as he’s able, even after he retires from touring. The same day, Guy’s 30-something acolytes Larkin Poe will play their Jazz Fest debut. Morgan Heritage, the biggest reggae act on this year’s bill, also performs on Thursday. Retro R&B stars Leon Bridges and Durand Jones will be there, along with several local favorites: alt-rock band Cowboy Mouth, the Hot 8 Brass Band, brass band funksters Bonerama, and zydeco master Rockin’ Dopsie Jr. Also, look out for jazz supergroup Artemis and Indigenous Canadian star DJ Shub. Suggested lineup: Durand Jones, Buddy Guy, Morgan Heritage.
On Friday, 5 May, Jon Batiste is bound to receive a hero’s homecoming after winning last year’s Album of the Year Grammy. A New Orleans native, Batiste grew up as part of the famous Batiste musical family that has performed regularly at the Festival since it began in 1970. This will be the eleventh time he’ll have his own slot at Jazz Fest. Joining Batiste at the top of the bill are multiplatinum rapper Ludacris and country singer Kane Brown. A few other big New Orleans stars, Irma Thomas and the Soul Rebels return from the first weekend. They’re joined on the second Friday by the brass band Big Sam’s Funky Nation, zydeco star CJ Chenier, and John Boutté (originator of the Treme theme song). On Friday, blues abound as well, from Eric Gales and Marcia Ball to Sue Foley and Chris Thomas King. Plus, there’s Philly jazz champ Christian McBride. Suggest lineup: Chris Thomas King, Sue Foley, Irma Thomas, Jon Batiste.
The 6th of May will mark the first time any incarnation of the Grateful Dead plays Jazz Fest, as Dead & Company make this show the first stop on their final tour. Just how happy the Festival is to have them is signaled by their unusually-long day-closing 150-minute set on its biggest stage. The second Saturday bill is stacked with big national stars like folk rockers the Lumineers, Puerto Rican rapper Farruko, and R&B sensation H.E.R. Blues and roots fans will be happy to see John Hiatt, Robert Randolph, and Keb’ Mo’ on the bill. On the second Saturday, Louisiana is represented by Cajun stars Beausoleil, indie darlings Hurray For the Riff Raff and Boyfriend, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, singer-songwriter Anders Osbourne, Meters bassist George Porter Jr. and his Runnin’ Pardners, and jazz colossus Terence Blanchard. Suggested lineup: George Porter, Anders Osbourne, Preservation Hall, Hurray for the Riff Raff, Dead & Company.
Folk rockers Mumford & Sons and Melissa Etheridge get plum slots on the seventh and final day. Trombone Shorty, the biggest young New Orleans star this side of Jon Batiste, plays the closing set on the main stage, a space occupied by the Neville Brothers for many years. He’ll be joined on Sunday’s bill by New Orleans acts of an older vintage: the Radiators, Meters drummer Zigaboo Modeliste, and Galactic (featuring new lead singer Anjelika “Jelly” Joseph). R&B titans, both recent (Ne-Yo) and classic (Tom Jones, Maze featuring Frankie Beverly), also join the party. Last but certainly not least, there’s the 82-year-old jazz legend Herbie Hancock. Suggested lineup: Zigaboo Modeliste, Galactic, and at the close of the Festival, Herbie Hancock (though Trombone Shorty, Tom Jones, and Maze are all, unfortunately, playing at that time as well).
Another big, non-musical element that sets Jazz Fest far apart from other festivals is its cuisine. While the food at many music festivals is barely edible, at the level of fast food or even prison cooking, the food at Jazz Fest rivals (or even surpasses) the dishes served at the nation’s finest restaurants. What the food is not, though, is low in calories. Highlights include a crawfish tail and melted cheese sandwich (Crawfish Bread); pork shoulder on French bread with slaw (Cochon de Lait Po-Boy); pasta in cream sauce with crawfish tails (Crawfish Monica); deep-fried pastry filled with nuts and sugar (Praline Beignet); crawfish in gravy with onions and peppers (Crawfish Étouffée); and the Italian meat and cheese sandwich with olive dressing (Muffaletta). People who love to eat might say the food alone is worth the price of Festival admission, even if they have little interest in music.
Finally, there’s the matter of getting to and from the Festival. The Jazz Fest Express goes directly from the city center to the Fair Grounds, where the Festival occurs. It leaves and returns to spots near hotels in the French Quarter and Central Business District. Plus, it goes to and from a third spot, further from the city center, near parking in City Park. There’s also parking close to the Fair Grounds, usually for a fee (but typically, there’s a lot of traffic to contend with). Public buses are an option, too.