New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival: From Music to Voodoo

August 31st, 2016

This is a feature from the September/October 2016 issue of Guitar Aficionado magazine. For this complete story and more photos, plus features on Prince and his guitars, virtuoso guitarist Paul Gilbert and his insatiable lust for guitars and passion for sharing his knowledge, the story behind Creedence Clearwater Revival’s breakthrough year, a visit to the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, and much more, pick up the new issue of Guitar Aficionado at your newsstand, or online by clicking anywhere in this text.

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Above: Jim James of My Morning Jacket during the band’s headline set on the Gentilly Stage.

BIG EASY ACTION: A visit to the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival is an opportunity to soak up the city’s legendary music, tantalizing food, and uncommon fascination with voodoo.

By Josh Max | Photography by Danin Drahos

For a premier jazz event, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival has the odd habit of welcoming mainstream performers who have nothing to do with jazz or New Orleans. Witness the 2014 event, which included Bon Jovi among its main acts; or last year’s celebration, where the Who and Lenny Kravitz took turns on the mainstage. This year’s festival, held April 22 through May 1, featured non-jazz headliners like the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Pearl Jam, and Snoop Dogg.

But jazz, as defined by Webster, is a fitting term when applied to this chaotic, over-the-top, anything-goes festival, which drew 425,000 fans over this year’s 10-day run. At times it can become a quasi-quadrophonic experience, with, for example, locals Keith Frank & the Soileau Zydeco Band performing to one’s left while the soulful blues of the Delgado Brothers is blasting from the right. A marching brass band surrounded by an entourage of inebriated festivalgoers may bump you from behind as you watch Van Morrison do his thing on the mainstage. There are no dull moments. It’s all stimulation, all the time, and you get your money’s worth.

A mere 350 people attended the festival’s humble 1970 launch, headlined by jazz giant Duke Ellington and gospel legend Mahalia Jackson. Today, 46 years later, the event has mushroomed into the second-largest tourist attraction in New Orleans, bested only by Mardi Gras. Both events, naturally, draw every type of human being you can imagine, from party animals to sophisticated connoisseurs; from the scantily clads to those with 20-foot hairdos; from young to old to black to white to sober to trashed.

The unexpected headliner for 2016, though, was rain—or rather the apocalyptic billion gallons of water dumped over the city and the festival at various points over the 10 days we spent in Louisiana. When downpours weren’t canceling Stevie Wonder and Beck due to flooding, there were acres of deep mud to slip-slide away in as Paul Simon took the stage. And when the lucky ol’ sun did peek its head out, it turned you lobster red wherever you didn’t apply sunscreen. It was down ’n’ dirty, spiritual, deafening, and wet, and it was a blast.

Then there was the city of New Orleans itself, equally spirited and equally wet at times, but not quite so deafening. This was my maiden voyage to the Big Easy, and I made the decision, while installed at the elegant, historic Bourbon Orleans Hotel, to neither consult a map nor take any form of public transportation. I had new birthday sneakers and intended, after witnessing the intensity of the 20 square blocks surrounding my hotel in the famed French Quarter, to explore my new world street by street, store by store, shrimp by shrimp, and band by band.

There are hundreds of eateries in NOLA, as well as the usual “Things to See,” local debaucheries, and curiosities that cater to tourists. The Shops at Canal Place & Movie Theaters, Audubon Aquarium, World War II museum, and Natchez Steamboat are just a few major attractions, along with Harrah’s Casino, the Audubon Insectarium, and the St. Charles Street Car Line.

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