50th Fête: New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival gets better with age

Hannah Eichelbaum, Staff Reporter

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Jazz in New Orleans has a long and spirited history. The same can be said of the famous New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, locally simplified to “Jazz Fest.” The festival takes place over two weekends, from April 25 to April 28 and May 2 to May 5.

The first annual festival took place in 1970, marking this year as its 50th birthday. At this first festival Mahalia Jackson, known as the “Queen of Gospel,” along with Duke Ellington, made famous by his jazz orchestra, spontaneously began performing with the Eureka Brass Band, leading the parade.

Jazz Fest Crowd in 2014. Courtesy of New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival & Foundation, Inc.

It is this essence of music, fun and cultural appreciation that Jazz Fest continues to embody to this day. In addition to jazz, the festival also celebrates other local genres like Cajun, zydeco, folk, blues, country, rock and gospel music.

Looking back, it’s hard to believe that the proposal for the festival was initially criticized by founder of the Newport Jazz Festival George Wein, who worried that it would be too similar to his own festival.  

Since the Jazz Fest, city leaders have worked to help the festival grow into an event worthy of representing the unique history and love of jazz in New Orleans. Jazz Fest transformed from a 350-person event with no stage or PA system to a New Orleans staple and tourist event held over two weekends.

Spread throughout the Fair Grounds Race Course, Jazz Fest will be hosting a number of food caterers, handmade art and craft vendors, culture exhibits and, of course, an amazing lineup of musicians.

Headliners for this year’s festival include Alanis Morissette, The Head and the Heart, Katy Perry, Leon Bridges, Logic, Ellis Marsalis Family Tribute, Dave Matthews Band, Diana Ross and Pitbull. With performances sprawling across 13 different locations from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. each day, there is bound to be music to suit everyone’s taste.

If you are more of a foodie than music lover, all of your New Orleans favorites will be featured at Jazz Fest. Some highlights featured on the food lineup are ice cream sandwiches, chocolate dipped strawberries, gyro and falafel sandwiches, sno-balls, spring rolls and, most importantly, the foods New Orleans is famous for: oysters, jambalaya and po’boys. A new feature of this year’s festival will be The Food Heritage Stage. This will feature interviews with famous local chefs and featured vendors and food demonstrations, and each day having a different theme, to highlight cuisine favorites and staples.

While it is typical of festival-goers to pick a date to attend Jazz Fest based solely off when their favorite artists are performing when the event fits into their busy schedule, it’s also a good idea to consider the weather. Historically, the festival has seen some serious spring showers, and this year there is a 100 percent chance of rain April 25, the first day of Jazz Fest. So, either opt to attend another day when the weather is expected to be sunny, bring an umbrella or just have faith the the universe will prove our meteorologists wrong.