About This Festival
Jazz fan or not, the annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival is the place to celebrate music. During the last weekend in April and the first weekend in May, the Big Easy opens to the page in its history book that’s filled with tribal African beats, harmonic church hymns, and American pop music, filling 12 stages with everything from jazz and blues to rock and folk. This soulful festival has a relaxed vibe, perfect if you want to experience New Orleans culture without the madness of Mardi Gras.
The Birth of Jazz
Jazz Fest has been celebrating New Orleans music for more than 40 years, but jazz got its start long before that. During the 1800s, America’s slave trade was booming, bringing almost half a million Africans to the South, largely from the region near the Congo. Music from West Africa was mostly percussion-heavy tribal beats played almost exclusively for rituals or to keep work moving. In New Orleans, however, large dance festivals of African drumming were held on Sundays in Plaza Congo until 1843. The church played a role in fusing tribal percussion with harmonic hymns known to the slaves as spirituals. Post-Civil War, laws limiting the civil liberties of African Americans, known as the Black Codes, were passed, and included an outlaw on drumming.
Perhaps out of necessity, a new rhythm evolved using everyday household items and the body for percussion (finger snaps, hand claps and raps on a bottle cap). Some of these creative rhythmic variations influenced the early stages of jazz. At the turn of the 20th century, the New Orleans jazz revolution was in full swing. Dixieland was one of the first styles of jazz and perhaps the most cheerful; it gave New Orleans its most cherished anthem, “When the Saints Go Marching In.” Jazz led to ragtime, the blues, swing and bebop before jumping the Atlantic to France where it took on European variations. Today jazz is well-traveled with festivals in international destinations including Montreal and Montreux.
Founding of the New Orleans Jazz Festival
George Wein receives most of the credit for founding the New Orleans Jazz Festival in 1970, along with the creation of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation, the nonprofit organization managing the festival. The first year boasted a lineup of legends including Duke Ellington, Mahalia Jackson, Fats Domino, and Clifton Chenier, but only 350 people showed up at Congo Square. Jazz Fest now takes over 12 stages near the Fair Ground Race Course, and single-day attendance and ticket sales alone can top 150,000. While jazz is still a focus, you’ll find a sampling of other genres including gospel, Cajun, zydeco, blues, rock, funk, African, Latin, Caribbean, and folk.
We enjoyed the big names and lineups performing at the fairgrounds, but we loved the atmosphere and vibe of downtown, where you’ll find clubs hosting intimate, late-night shows. From a rockabilly rendition of Black Sabbath to a jam session with local heroes Dragon Smoke, our nights in the back alleys of New Orleans were the most memorable.