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Jazz Fest Insider’s Guide

All you need to know from a Jazz Fest pro.

jazz-fest-crowd
The crowd at Jazz Fest. (Photo: Paul Broussard)

Every day of the last weekend in April and the first weekend in May for most of the last 20 years, I’ve thrown a hat on my head, a stupid grin on my face, and aimed my bike towards the Fairgrounds. After hundreds of sunburns, of missing something amazing because I walked the wrong way — and one or two (or five) times when I failed to remember the importance of hydration — I’ve learned some lessons about how to make the most of the Fest. Gather ’round, y’all. I’ll share ’em with ya.

Trombone Shorty at Jazz Fest. (Photo: Paul Broussard)

New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival Tips

Your music plan of attack

First things first: Get on the Jazz Fest website and figure out what you’re seeing, and when. You’ve heard of – and heard – the big-name acts at the Acura, Congo Square, and Gentilly stages. But before you nail down your plans, find out who’s on small stages like the Native American Village and Alison Miner Heritage stages, and get the low-down on parades, particularly if you’re not lucky enough to make it out to second lines every Sunday.

Don’t sleep on the “heritage” aspect of the festival, either. The Jazz and Heritage Stage is ground zero for local brass bands, Mardi Gras Indians, and funk, while the Fais Do-Do Stage features Cajun and Creole music all day, every day. The festival website and app have tons of info on all the acts but local publications like Offbeat, which features an A-Z guide of performers online and in the hard copy, come in handy, too.

Crawfish Monica is a popular Jazz Fest dish. (Photo: Paul Broussard)

Eat dat: Pro tips for your belly

Jazz Fest has almost as many food options as it has music options, so you won’t go hungry. And while dishes like Crawfish Monica are crowd favorites, you may find yourself wishing for a shorter line, a healthier option, or even just a lesser-known treat that wasn’t on your radar.

Healthy-ish:

  • Bennachin Restaurant: Their jama jama dish featuring spinach, chicken on a stick and fried plantains is a must. Straight-up jama jama (that’s the spinach) is awesome, too. The booth is way in the back behind the Congo Square field. Try the hot sauce.
  • Jamila’s: This Mediterranean Riverbend staple often has short lines. It offers has a satisfyingly light salad and a great bisque. The booth is along the main strip of food booths running along the inner track between the Acura and Congo Square stages.
  • Fried oyster spinach salad: Well, OK, it’s not exactly health food, but it’s delicious and involves veggies. If you’re facing the Jazz and Heritage stage, head left. It’s one of the first food booths you’ll hit.
  • Vietnamese food: Find it by the Jazz Tent.

Shorter lines and food you may have overlooked:

  • Shrimp maque-choux in the Native American Village: There’s rarely a line, it’s light and yummy, and it represents a key connection between our cuisine and the indigenous people of the region.
  • Stuffed mushrooms from Prejean’s: For reasons I will never understand, this booth is often short in the line department. It’s one of the best seafood treats out there.
  • If you find yourself in need of a near-meal between the Jazz and Blues Tents, Li’l Dizzy’s Trout Baquet with crabmeat is where it’s at. Unless, of course, you don’t like butter. In which case, you may be at the wrong festival.
  • Fun fact: Most vendors will give you tin foil if ya wanna stock up and take something delicious home with you. It’s a better plan than pretending you’re gonna make that fancy dinner reservation after leaving the Fest at 7 with a plan to see more music by 9. (Another friendly reminder: Please don’t make that dinner reservation unless you’re really going to keep it; remember someone is serving an empty table and someone else may not be able to try a great restaurant because you blocked it out. Be nice, or leave, as the saying goes!)

Cold dranks: We got ‘em.

I highly recommend starting your day with a large rose-mint iced tea, ordered sweet or unsweet. Our sun is for real. Chances are your inclination for imbibing the night before was for real, too. Hydration is your friend. As you navigate towards sugar territory, the fresh-squeezed lemonade, strawberry or otherwise, is another tasty, booze-free option.

Alcohol-wise, here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Red wine will usually be served cold like the white wine and champagne to keep it from turning
  • The Fest introduced a bloody mary option this year if beer, wine, margaritas and daqs aren’t your thing
  • Remember, the folks serving beverages are working hard in the sun all day. Tips are good for the old karma boomerang.
The streets surrounding the Fairgrounds become packed with artists, musicians, and fans following the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, creating impromptu street parties. (Photo: Katie Sikora)

Walkin’ to New Orleans: Getting there and getting around

It’s Jazz Fest. You gonna walk a minute, so make sure you have comfy shoes on your feet. Now that we’ve got your paws covered, here are your options for getting there and away:

Before and after the Fest

  • Cabs, Lyfts, and Ubers: United Cab (504-522-9771) has an Uber-like app you can try for your way there. To cab back, just head to the taxi stand on Esplanade Avenue just outside the Fest. Buses conveniently pick up from a block away if you don’t have luck with a cab.
  • Bicycles: Biking is a great way to get to the Fest, and if you plan on hanging around the parties and shenanigans that happen beyond the gates after 7 p.m., make sure your bike has lights on it. Esplanade Avenue has a bike lane that will take you to the top of Decatur Street if you’re headed downtown. Uptown-bound? Check out the protected bike path along S. Jefferson Davis Parkway. You’ll have to ride on Moss Street or another bike lane-free road for a few blocks, but Jeff Davis will take you to Fountainbleu Drive. Cross the neutral ground, hang a left, and you’ll hit Napoleon Avenue. Hang a right and you can head toward the Riverbend via Nashville and St. Charles.
  • Driving: When looking for parking, bear in mind you can always go around to the lakeside or Gentilly side of the Fair Grounds. Plan some extra car time in both directions, though, and remember you will be sharing the road with cyclists, pedestrians, and police sobriety checkpoints (hint, hint).

    Social aid and pleasure clubs have a centuries-long history in New Orleans. (Photo courtesy of New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival presented by Shell)

At the Fest

  • Use the outside track on days like the second Saturday, which is notoriously bananas, crowd-wise. That said, on days when there are huge acts at Acura, Congo Square and Gentilly stages simultaneously, don’t be afraid to cut through the grass.
  • Your best bet for breakin’ on through to the other side is often to veer from Acura past the food booths and towards the statues of New Orleans music community legends behind the Congo Square crowd. There’s usually a cozy spot with decent sound in the grass back there if you’re feeling whatever’s playing at Congo Square.
  • To get from Jazz, Blues, Economy Hall or Gospel to Gentilly, go with the track. Bear right, and you won’t get caught in the human traffic jam that often materializes in front of the Big Chief passholders’ Grand Stand at the Gentilly Stage.
Chairs and blankets are commonplace at the Fest. (Photo: Paul Broussard)

What to bring and other essentials

  • You know that smell you keep noticing? Especially when it rains? You’re on a horse racetrack. Guess why the mud smells that way and proceed accordingly.
  • Your skin loves sunblock.
  • When rain is in the forecast, boots (and socks!) are preferred over flip-flops. Also: maybe rethink those flip-flops no matter what the weather.
  • If you are a sitter at Jazz Fest, blankets are a great option that won’t bonk the faces of folks behind you as you move from stage to stage. The Interwebs sell lots of water-resistant outdoor blankets that fold up and can be a nice alternative to metal fold-up chairs.
  • The bathrooms with A/C generally have crazy long lines, but sometimes that’s your only option. They’re located in the Grand Stand (the ones upstairs on the Esplanade Avenue end of the building tend to have shorter lines than the ones downstairs) and on the track between the Blues and Jazz Tents. Bringing your own TP and hand sanitizer is never a bad idea for the rest of the day, when you’re bound to use a regular ol’ port-o-let.
The Fais Do-Do stage. (Photo: Cheryl Gerber)

Lagniappe: The Watermelon Sacrafice

I can’t tell you much about this sacred, secret ritual in the interest of honoring the tradition’s clandestine power. I can tell you that it’s weird and lovely, like New Orleans, and that it involves a watermelon. If you’re near Fais Do-Do in the afternoon on the second Thursday, keep your ear ready for a chant that starts with “Watermelon, watermelon,” and ends with, “Sell it to the rich, sell it to the poor, sell it to tha lady standin’ in that do-o-o-or.” You can work out the rest. I believe in you.

Happy Fest!

Jennifer Odell is a freelance music writer. Her work appears regularly in DownBeat, Jazz Times, Offbeat and the Gambit, among other publications, and she leads the New Orleans chapter of the Jazz Journalists Association. In her spare time, she enjoys second lining to the Hot 8 or TBC, costuming, and eating all of the crawfish.

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