Tips for Making the Most of Your New Orleans Jazz Fest Experience

Sometime during the winter, the organizers of the annual New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival said that the show will go on. April 28-30 and May 5-7, 2006 marks the 37th anniversary of the six-day music festival at the New Orleans Fairgrounds. Jazz Fest, as it is more commonly called, celebrates the music and culture of New Orleans and Louisiana, and features hundreds of performers representing an enormous array of styles including: jazz, blues, zydeco, Cajun, rock, country, bluegrass, rap, gospel, Latin, and Afro-Carribbean. Each year, local musicians are in the spotlight, but nationally known performers also take the stage. This year’s headliners include: Bruce Springsteen with the Seeger Sessions Band, Allan Toussaint with Elvis Costello, Bob Dylan, Juvenile, Etta James, Jimmy Buffet, Keb Mo’, Fats Domino, Herbie Hancock, Dave Matthews Band, Dr, John, Paul Simon, Ani DiFranco, and Keith Urban.

In New Orleans, there are two types of people: Mardi Gras People and Jazz Fest People. I fall firmly into the “Jazz Fest People” camp. Don’t get me wrong, I love Mardi Gras, and this year’s Mardi Gras, tinged with tragedy and gratitude, was one of the best yet. But, for me, Jazz Fest is better than Mardi Gras, my birthday, and Christmas combined. Jazz Fest is the perfect blend of everything I love:

1) It takes place outside, during some of the finest weather Louisiana has to offer. Late May and early June usually features weather in the high 70’s and low 80’s. It’s almost unfailingly sunny (although we had a few rainy days in the past years). The days are long, so when the event ends at 7pm, the sun is still shining. The school year is winding down (I’m a teacher), and it’s the perfect time to start practicing for summer relaxation.

2) Jazz Fest offers hundreds of choices for food from some of the very best restaurants in the area. More on this later, but some of the best eating I do all year is at Jazz Fest.

3) There’s non-stop live music on ten stages. At any time during the Festival, you can take 20 minutes or so and walk the circuit around the stages and see a puppet show at the Kid’s Tent, a local nightclub act at the Lagniappe Stage, Mardi Gras Indians at the Jazz & Heritage Stage, a huge choir in the Gospel Tent, zydeco at Fais-do-do Stage, an old-time Dixieland band at the Economy Hall Tent, an internationally known jazz act at the Jazz Tent, a local New Orleans Brass Band at the Rebirth Stage, a Delta blues man in the Blues Tent, and a Top-40 star at the Acura Stage. All day, from 11am-7pm.

4) The Fest also features hundreds of craftspeople and artists displaying and selling their work. The line-up typically changes each weekend, so each visit to the Fairgrounds is like a little trip to a museum. Folk art and photography and clothing and furniture and glass and sculpture, you name it.

So, Jazz Fest is tons of live music, outside, during beautiful weather, with some of the best food the area has to offer, and an art show to boot!

As a Jazz Fest veteran-this will be my ninth-I’ve learned a few tricks that all but guarantee I will have an excellent time each day I attend.

The best way to enjoy Jazz Fest is to get there right on time. The gates open at 11am, and I suggest you get there at 11am. Typically, if you see a nightclub show advertised as starting at 9:00pm in New Orleans, it’s a good bet that if you get there around 10:30pm, you’ll still catch the beginning of the show. But, unlike just about everything else in New Orleans, things run pretty much on schedule at Jazz Fest. The doings really do start shortly after 11am, and arriving on time gives you a chance to plan your schedule for the day, grab some food (when the lines are short), swing by the arts booths, and still grab a good seat for the first show.

I am crazy about hot weather, but even I can get overheated at Jazz Fest. So here are a few tips for beating the heat at the Festival. Do not wear jeans. I make this mistake every couple of years and always regret it. I’m always happiest in a skirt or a sundress. Shorts and lightweight pants will work too. If you’ve got it, flaunt it-wear a bikini top under you shirt. Lots of guys walk around topless. Bring a hat with a brim or buy one at the Fest; you’ll see all kinds of wacky headgear at the Fest. At hat is a must, not an option. An umbrella is good too, to shield you from the sun or from a rain shower.

Get wet to stay cool! Hydrate! Drink lots and lots of water and lemonade. Remember that iced-tea (unless it’s herbal tea) and iced-coffee drinks have caffeine in them and will de-hydrate you. Buy a bottle of water and save the bottle-there are several water fountains where you can refill your bottle for free. It’s water to drink, but also to splash on you when it gets hot. Often I bring an empty spray bottle to fill, so I can spritz myself when things get really steamy. There are also mist tents in two locations at the Fest.

The Fest offers little shade except in the music tents, but the Grandstand is open-with music and food-and air conditioning! So if it gets unbearable, that’s the place to go. At least Pre-Katrina there were some lovely shade trees by the Fais-do-do Tent, unfortunately I can’t promise that they’re still there now.

Sunblock. Need I say more? I speak from experience when I say how miserable it is when you get burned to a crisp one day and have to suffer the burn at the Fest the next day.

Your shoes WILL get dirty. As will the rest of you, most likely. Keep this in mind when choosing your wardrobe. Sandals (with no heels) or sneakers or flip-flops are best. No heels! I can’t tell you the number of high-heeled women I’ve seen stumbling and wobbling through the Fairgrounds-remember this is a race track-all dirt and grass. This ain’t about being cute, folks.

Other things to bring: a blanket or beach towels, very light folding chairs, a back pack or big bag, sunglasses, and a pen (to mark your schedule).

Make sure you have a watch so you can coordinate with your friends. A cell phone, too, but keep it on vibrate (it’s too loud at the Fest to hear it ring most of the time). Plan specific meet-up times. Use major landmarks-light poles, flag poles, particular crafts booths.

Most vendors will hold things for you so you can pick them up later. Much of the work offered by craftspeople and artists is one of a kind, so if you see something you like, buy it right away. But you don’t want to lug your artwork around with you all day.

Plan your food intake thoughtfully. Eat early, so you have plenty of energy during the heat of the day. Sometimes, just before the Fest ends, I’ll buy a bunch of stuff “to go” to take home for dinner. Don’t overstuff yourself, no matter how tempting it may be. If you eat little bits often, you won’t get the woozy, tired, full feeling that will make you drag. If you’re on a diet-just typing those words made me sad-splurge on one really yummy thing, but then seek out the great salads and light offerings. There are plenty, but you have to search for them. The food is one of the best things about Jazz Fest; use the opportunity to try a diverse array of cuisine. The star of every year is the Crawfish Monica, pasta in a spicy, creamy sauce with crawfish tails. Also fantastic: fried crawfish tails (make sure you get the spicy potatoes with it), Indian Bread, white chocolate bread pudding, strawberry lemonade, iced cafÃ?© au lait, Cuban sandwiches, frogs legs, Jamaican Jerk ChickenâÂ?¦ really, the best of the best is too many to name. In the end, you pretty much can’t go wrong food-wise.

The Fest is very safe and very family friendly (there’s a whole “food court” for kids with PB&J sandwiches and mac & cheese). But be careful walking in the neighborhood. I hate to even mention it because it breaks my heart and because I feel like people have a lot of misconceptions about New Orleans and safety. But New Orleans remains a big question mark, post-Katrina. Catch a cab or a shuttle or a bus. Don’t go wandering around in neighborhoods that you aren’t familiar with. That’s good advice for ANY city.

Finally-and this is just from my own personal experience-after my first or second Jazz Fest, I swore off drinking alcohol at the Fest. Beer is plentiful and the beer sales often go to support local organizations, but I find that heat and beer don’t mix well. Most of my friends don’t adhere to this rule, but I’m convinced it’s helped me have a rocking good time at the Fest for years.

Make sure you take in some of the nighttime offerings. Lots of the musicians appearing at Jazz Fest book night shows at local venues, and other musicians come to town just to cash in on the Fest buzz.

Post-Katrina New Orleans is, as I said, a giant question mark. But we are open for business and need your support. The city is wounded, but many of the most beloved areas of New Orleans-the French Quarter, the Garden District, and Uptown-still offer much of what they offered before the storm. And the spirit and soul of the city is still intact. If you come to New Orleans, I urge you to take the time to view the hard-hit areas of the city. Even though I live here and live with the post-flood stress and heartache every day, the reality of the event hit me only when I drove out to St. Bernard Parish and saw it for myself. Go see it. Be sensitive, of course-this isn’t a disaster theme park. But go see it. And then go home and tell everyone you know about it. And tell them that New Orleans needs help and has been, in essence, abandoned.

I guarantee you, a good time at Jazz Fest will not only turn you into a Jazz Fest Person, it will turn you into a New Orleanian in your heart.

Tickets for Jazz Fest are $30 a day in advance or $40 on the day of the event.

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