Too Much Mardi Gras? Relax With The Jazz Fest

Then I discovered Jazz Fest. Queue the harps, clouds parting, sun beaming down, heaven opening up before you, and all that!

New Orleans Jazz Fest 2
PHOTO JASON CANTER

The first time I went to New Orleans, it was for Mardis Gras and  I’m not gonna lie, it was a VERY good time. Pat O’Brien’s for hurricanes, hand grenades at Tropical Isle, and the whole bead thing. The downside is that there were times on Bourbon Street where both feet literally get lifted off the ground as I was moved with the wave of the crowd, not to mention the smells from people who have overindulged…enough said. Fun enough when you are younger, but even then, still a bit much. Then I discovered Jazz Fest. Queue the harps, clouds parting, sun beaming down, heaven opening up before you, and all that!

It all started for me back in 1994, I worked with John who happened to be from a suburb of New Orleans. He was heading back to visit family and invited me to go to this “thing” called Jazz Fest (officially knows as the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival).  I’m adventurous, so I was definitely in. If you plan to stay in the French Quarter, book your hotel as far in advance as you can, even 6-10 months for the best rates as hotels sell out good rates early.

Friday morning comes, first day of Jazz Fest awaits. I’m excited, but not exactly sure what to expect. We drive and park quite a few blocks away (you can take a taxi from your hotel in the French quarter for $4/person or you can get a bus on a Canal for $3/person). As we approach the venue, the number of people walking with us swells, and the closer we get the more lively the atmosphere gets with people hawking, beer, water, sodas, t-shirts, folding chairs (a must have, especially with backpack straps and a cup holder if possible), souvenirs, and of course koozies. These koozies (kozy, coolie, or whatever your part of the nation calls them, the think that keeps your beer can cold?) have a twist, they have a strap so you can wear them around your neck to go hands free. Why is this important? The printing on the koozie says it all, “How ya gonna clap?”. Definitely buy one of these!

New Orleans Jazz Fest 1
Photo: Douglas Mason

We approach the gate, advance tickets in hand to avoid massive will-call and purchase lines, not to mention they’re cheaper! They have nine stages of music going, two primary on opposite ends, with smaller stages scattered throughout, but they are far enough away from each other that you can enjoy each separately. Although they do have a dedicated Jazz tent, do not be fooled by the festival name, as this is really a testament to all types of music: gospel, funk, rock, alternative, zydeco, pop, international, blues, etc.  Although there are plenty of global, famous name acts you know, the fun is really going to see acts you don’t know, like local New Orleans legends Cowboy Mouth, Trombone Shorty, Dr. John, John Mooney, Buckwheat Zydeco, Galactic, the Neville Brothers, Irma Thomas, etc.

I find a lot of the fun is walking around from stage to stage, checking out all of the music, food and art, and just people watching in general. This is an art festival as well, celebrating heritage, so you will find all mediums: paintings, photography, jewelry, clothing, sculpture, etc. There are tons of booths with local artists. Every year has an official poster as well. The poster is always amazing and appreciates in value (just in case you find yourself on hard times…)

Did I mention they have food? This is not your typical festival food with funnel cakes, hot dogs, peanuts, and pretzels.  They give a booth to roughly the best local producers of each item, and that is what they get to serve! Crawfish Monica (spicy Cajun mac & cheese with crawfish!), crawfish etoufee, jambalaya, gumbo, muffuletta (roughly the best sandwich in the world, think pork products, various cheeses, olive tapenade, yum!), soft shell crab po’ boys, cheesy crawfish and sausage/jalapeno breads, piles of fresh boiled crawfish (there is an art to cracking them), white chocolate bread pudding, alligator this, quail that. One of the hardest parts of your weekend will be figuring out what to eat, when, so you get everything you want, multiple times, and don’t miss out on anything amazing. I recommend sharing, a lot of sharing.

Jazz Fest is only 12-7pm daily, so for the rest of the time… well, you’ll figure it out. Saturday night always has us go to an amazing restaurant for dinner, like Jacques-Imo’s, NOLA, or Commander’s Palace (make reservations a month or two in advance for the top restaurants!).  Assuming we are not too full and funned out, we cap off the night with a Hurricane at Pat O’Brien’s, the traditional Bourbon street fun (still fun during Jazz Fest, it just isn’t crazy crowded like during Mardi Gras), and if we are really adventurous, a late night show at legendary Tipitina’s. Sunday tradition has us wake up early (enough) to hit Café Du Monde for cafe au lait and beignets and Mother’s for a debris sandwich for lunch, then off to a few hours of the fest, then off to the airport for an 8pm flight.

I would be remiss if I left out one other amazing highlight.  Even though this no longer exists, I gotta believe it will be back at some point, and regardless, it shows the spirit of the city and the festival to a T. It is called “Shell Fest”. I’m sure you are all thinking about some sandy beach type party, eating crawfish, shell fish, etc. Now picture hundreds of people drinking, smoking, dancing the electric slide and limbo through the pumps at a Shell gas station. A DJ is spinning records and in between each song you hear his deep bass voice saying “C-o-o-o-o-o-ld Be-e-e-e-e-e-r!” as their mini mart does a brisk business. There is a water mister tent to help people cool off. Oh, and this is all while cars are filing up! It is a Darwin award winner waiting to happen (Think Zoolander), probably also why it was shut down.

Anyway, I’ve been ten times since my first trip, I even went the very next April after Hurricane Katrina, which was truly inspiring to see the city showcase it’s resilience and spirit and put on a grand show as always. This is one bucket list item that you will want to repeat over and over again with your friends!

Jason Canter

Contributor

Jason loves beaches, sailing, diving & trying new foods. His travel style is about staying central & close to the action. His favorite country is Mexico & he never travels without his Tumi roller.

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