New Orleans Festival celebrates the city’s diverse culture

Crescent City festival continues its historic run as America’s musical melting pot.

By Jerry Ough, Staff Writer

Photo by Jerry Ough/The Valley Star

The most unique and diverse music festival in America takes up residence in one of the nation’s oldest, most beautiful and endlessly fascinating cities each spring. But to call the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival simply a music festival does not begin to do it justice. Jazz Fest, as it is affectionately known, is a deep, delightful dive into the music, food, arts, crafts, history and remarkable culture of the Crescent City. The world famous event celebrated its 50th anniversary last spring and impressively made the case that there is arguably no other American festival that can so completely and wonderfully represent the amazing cultural tapestry of its host city.

While the big name acts like Katy Perry, Earth Wind and Fire, Al Green, The Doobie Brothers and Santana got much of the attention, the real thrills came from the artists who represent the rich, vibrant and incredibly diverse arts and culture of New Orleans. Jeffrey Broussard and the Creole Cowboys, Dwayne Dopsie and the Zydeco Hellraisers, The Dirty Dozen Brass Band, The Bruce Daigrepont Cajun Band, Ivan Neville’s Dumpstaphunk and the New Orleans’ Mardi Gras Indians were just the tip of the musical iceberg at Jazz Fest.

The 50th Anniversary Jazz and Heritage Festival started late on opening day when a rainstorm drenched the New Orleans Fairgrounds, effectively cancelling the opening acts and causing a run on umbrellas and ponchos at the festival’s markets. That opening day downpour of Noah and the Ark proportions was astonishingly referred to by locals as “a little rain.” An epic deluge in New Orleans has evidently never stopped some die-hard fans from attending their beloved festival.

Jazz Fest fans were able to take advantage of the lineup, which featured artists who first played the festival’s early days back in the 1970’s including The Meters, Irma Thomas, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and the Marsalis family band, the latter featuring patriarch Ellis Marsalis performing with his children Wynton, Branford, Delfeayo and Jason.

The long-time fans are a distinctly dedicated bunch, especially when it comes to the exclusive, one-of-a-kind performances that can only be found at Jazz Fest.

“We came here especially to hear the Marsalis Family, the cajun bands and the traditional New Orleans music. This trip is a tradition for us, the nine-hour drive is absolutely worth it, we can visit with friends and we bring some amazing food back home with us,” said Peggy Shashie who drove all the way from Jacksonville, Florida. Peggy says she first started coming to the festival in the 1970s because not only was she born and raised in New Orleans but her grandmother also lived just a few blocks from where Jazz Fest takes place.

“I took Highway 11 out of Chattanooga and made the day-and-a-half drive all the way to New Orleans. I came for the music you don’t hear on the radio. That’s why I’m here,” said Jeffrey Bloomer from Knoxville, Tennessee. He says he became hooked when he and his then 9-year-old daughter (she is now 23) saw the Dirty Dozen Brass band in Knoxville’s Market Square. “I’ll always come to New Orleans,” he said.

As essential and thrilling it is for fans, Jazz Fest is also held in high regard by the musicians who perform there.

“This has been a part of my life that I’d never want to lose. It’s a festival that I’ve grown up with since I was a kid, it’s one of my favorite places to play and it’s my favorite time of the year in New Orleans. There’s a lot of musicians in town that we can share experiences with and you can’t beat that,” said Grammy winning trumpeter and composer Terence Blanchard.

The icing on the Jazz Fest cake is the fact that no other festival ushers you into its host city’s music scene so seamlessly. Jazz Fest wraps up at 7 p.m. which, to fans of other festivals, might seem odd until you discover why New Orleans is so famous for its amazing (and surprisingly affordable) after-hours music clubs. The nightlife on nearby Frenchmen Street is absolutely not to be missed. The three blocks between Esplanade Ave. and Washington Square boast over a dozen clubs including The Maison, Café Negril and The Spotted Cat with insanely cheap or no-cover music along with the neighborhood bars, cafes and open air art fair that all run into the wee hours.

Jazz Fest this spring takes place over eight glorious days beginning Thursday, April 23 through Friday, April 26, and then continuing from Thursday, April 30 through Sunday, May 3. It is eight days of absolute musical nirvana and phenomenal food festival that could be the closest thing to sensory overload you will ever find; not to mention all the history, architecture, restaurants and other cultural gems that New Orleans has to offer.

Legendary artists including The Who, The Beach Boys, Kool and the Gang, Foo Fighters, Lenny Kravitz, Wu-Tang Clan, Lizzo and H.E.R. will hit the stage at Jazz Fest 2020. But artists like The Dirty Dozen Brass Band, John Cleary, Kermit Ruffins, CJ Chenier, Jeffrey Broussard and any of the Marsalis or Neville Brothers are worth the price of admission. Think of it this way: Would you go to a New Orleans restaurant and order the same food you could get back home? Of course not. If you make it to the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Fest, order the gumbo and skip the pizza.