Music festivals have become an enormous industry in America, yet many of them have started to blur together, whether it’s because they’re all booking the same newcomers and legacy acts or because the average consumer listens to the same 20 artists, detached from context because of technology. Either way, the bigger festivals have become more generic and same-y, and the niche festivals often don’t offer enough diversity and think too small. The reason so many of these festivals seems to fall flat is that there’s no connection to the actual culture they’re trying to present. Put simply: most US festivals have no point of view and are defined by their arbitrariness.
Which is why the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival — established in 1970 and currently in full swing, running through May 3 — is still America’s best music festival. New Orleans is literally dripping with culture, primarily in the form of food, booze, and music, and Jazz Fest stirs together these elements in a perfect roux of Dionysian pleasure. Post-Katrina New Orleans has faced its share of challenges (and critics), but with Hollywood South booming and the revitalization and gentrification of some of its dicier blocks, New Orleans seems to be going as strong as ever, and its flagship event reflects this constant fascination with the Big Easy.
1. THE FOOD
Food has been a big draw for festival goers way before the 21st century boom of gourmet food trucks and high concept street food were even a glimmer in a millennial’s eye. The festival is as much about food and art as it is about the music. The food on offer is simply amazing, worth enduring long queue times, and blows any other festival food I’ve eaten out of the water. Check out staples such as the mango freeze, crawfish bread, boiled crawfish, alligator pie. The full menu — courtesy of dozens of local vendors — represents an extremely diverse cross section of Southeastern Louisiana cuisine in all its variations and mutations.
2. THE MUSIC
Jazz Fest began as a gathering in the French Quarter’s Congo Square, which is where American black music (and everything that ripped off black music) was born back in the 1700s. The fest’s lineup always represents a wide diaspora of local and national music from rock, blues, jazz, country, rap, zydeco, bluegrass, and almost everything in between. Sure it’s got your headliner legacy acts (this year: Ed Sheeran, Hozier, The Who, No Doubt, John Legend, Elton John, and eternal Jazz Fest stalwart Jimmy Buffet), but it goes extremely deep in the direction of acts you’ve probably never heard of.
Want to see Dr. John do a tribute to Louis Armstrong? They got that. Want to see DJ Jubilee throw down a bounce set with Partners-N-Crime? They got that. Want to see someone show you how to properly play a washboard? They definitely got that.
3. THE MARDI GRAS INDIANS
The Mardi Gras Indians are tribes of working-class black men who dress up in elaborate, hand sewn costumes (competing for title of “prettiest”) who honor the Native Americans who helped manumitted and escaped slaves in the surrounding bayou. While these tribes used to operate more like violent gangs, they’ve become peaceful over the last half century and are a living, breathing homage from one marginalized group to another. Their call and response songs and dances are the literal personification of New Orleans’ collision of cultures.
4. EDM FREE
Jazz Fest doesn’t use fly-by-night trends to influence its bookings, so there’s no act that represents the “EDM Barfsplosion,” nor has there ever been. No Skrillex, no ex-Swedish House Mafia douchebags, no button-pushers catering to teenage trance zombies. Just like in the ‘80s when it wasn’t booking hair metal, Jazz Fest maintains an open-minded booking philosophy that still sticks to quality music while weeding out the disposable flotsam.
[P.S.: If you want to go to a proper techno festival this spring, go to Detroit’s Movement Festival. They’ll sort you out. It’s similar in spirit to Jazz Fest but pays homage to Detroit as the birthplace of techno.]
5. THE GOSPEL TENT
Perhaps the one thing that Christianity gave us that we can all agree is awesome is gospel music. The Gospel Tent provides not only shade but also a walloping good time. Check your cynicism at the door.
6. YOU CAN DRINK *ANYWHERE*
This isn’t an issue for everyone, but many of the higher profile festivals (especially those in California) limit drinking to certain 21+ areas on the grounds. In New Orleans, public drinking isn’t just allowed: It’s encouraged.
7. IT’S AFFORDABLE
While many locals have bemoaned the increase in ticket prices because it used to be dirt cheap, it’s still only $58 per day for an adult ($5 for a child). In a festival climate where many don’t even offer single-day tickets, and places like Coachella cost $375, $58 is a steal. Also, drinking and eating in New Orleans are relatively cheap compared to major market cities, so if you feel like you’re spending too much, you’re probably doing it wrong.
8. THERE’S NO HEAVY BRANDING
This isn’t SXSW or CMJ. There aren’t a ton of gifting suites and brand parties. There is a corporate sponsor [Shell], but the schmoozey douche quotient is low. This isn’t geared towards industry types. It’s geared towards people. Have fun.
9. THE AFTERPARTIES
You don’t have to actually go to the festival to reap its spoils. Like any good festival, some of the real magic happens after hours in New Orleans’ many, many clubs, with extended jam sessions by some of music’s all time greats. Rumors are swirling that His Purple Majesty may make an unannounced club appearance this year. Because you never know what that dude is gonna do.