New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival: Everything You Need To Know

For lovers of music all across the world, music festivals are a truly unique experience in which you get to share your love of music, genres, artists and of course songs with your friends, family and even total strangers as you immerse yourself in your surroundings. For lovers of jazz music, culture and heritage, it does not come much bigger than the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. The festival made a magnificent return in 2022 following a two-year hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Now that the iconic festival is back, we’ve got all you need to know about the legendary event that has been a staple in the festival calendar since 1970.

What is the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival?

So, if you're not familiar with the event, the first question you probably have is; what is the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival? The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, more commonly known as Jazz Fest to its fans, is a festival that is held annually in New Orleans, Louisiana. According to the festival mission; “The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and Foundation, Inc., promotes, preserves, perpetuates, and encourages the music, culture, and heritage of communities in Louisiana through festivals, programs, and other cultural, educational, civic, and economic activities.” The festival is widely seen as one of the bedrocks of New Orleans traditions and draws visitors from far and wide to experience the unique event.

The popular festival draws hundreds of thousands of visitors to its venue to experience the music, cuisine, and cultural heritage of New Orleans and the state of Louisiana. Founded in 1970, the event began modestly, drawing a mere 350 attendees, but it has grown into one of the largest festivals in the United States and, in the process, provided a major economic boon for New Orleans that has allowed the city to grow. The record attendance for the event was recorded in 2001, with over 650,000 visitors over the course of the seven days it was held.

When answering the query "what is the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival?" It is important to look at the history of the event. 'Jazz Fest' was founded by jazz pianist and entrepreneur George Wein, who played an integral part in establishing the 'festival era' in the 1950s.

When it came to the early 1960s, New Orleans civic leaders approached Wein about producing a jazz festival in the city with the aim of boosting tourism and increasing community spirit within New Orleans and the state more generally. Having cemented his role as a key figure within the festival creation era, Wein established Festival Productions in 1969 and the company remains the production arm of Jazz Fest and countless other music events worldwide, bringing joy to millions of music lovers across the globe.

Wein then got to work on the very first Jazz Fest event to be held the following year, in 1970. The first Jazz Fest took place between April 22 and 26, 1970, in Congo Square, then known as Beauregard Square, in Louis Armstrong Park. Attendees only numbered about 350 - fewer than half of the total number of musicians and staff it took to present the event.

Headliners for the first event included Duke Ellington, Pete Fountain, Al Hirt, Clifton Chenier, The Olympia Brass Band, and Mardi Gras Indians who performed at the venue every day. Louisiana native Mahalia Jackson, scheduled to perform at the nearby Municipal Auditorium, thrilled the first audience with an impromptu “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” during a second line parade with the Eureka Brass Band. The first Jazz Fest event may have been small in size but the seed was planted for what was to become a massive festival in the years to come.

Indeed, by 1972 the festival had outgrown the Louis Armstrong Park area the inaugural events had called home and needed to be moved to a bigger venue - with the help of a $25,000 line of credit signed by architect Arthur Q. Davis Sr., Quint’s father - to the infield area of the New Orleans Fair Grounds Race Course. Jazz Fest continues to take place at the Fair Grounds each year on the last weekend of April and the first weekend of May. Between 1972 and 1976, the festival grew to encompass two three-day (Friday through Sunday) weekends.

During the 1980s, evening concerts in theaters and nightclubs were developed for the days between the two weekends. In 1991 the festival added an additional Thursday to its second weekend and the event we see today can last for up to 11 days, although the returning 2022 event was staged for 9 days between April 29 and May 8, drawing huge crowds as Jazz fest fans rejoiced in their returning festival that they love so dearly.

Where Is the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival?

The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival is held annually in New Orleans, Louisiana. The festival is located at the Fair Grounds Race Course, (also referred to as the New Orleans Fair Grounds), which is a horseracing course that is owned and operated by the Churchill Downs Louisiana Horseracing Company. This is rather unusual for a festival to be held at a racecourse but there is good reason for the somewhat unorthodox location.

The Fair Grounds Race Course is a pretty large venue with a big land mass, which as well as the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival often attracts visitors of up to 500,000 people. The seven-day event which took place in 2022 attracted a total audience of 475,000 so the large venue is definitely needed in order for jazz fans from all over to enjoy this iconic event.

When is the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival?

Planning is a huge part of any festival. Getting your friends together, arranging your travel and accommodation, perhaps arranging time off work and other logistical issues are just some of the planning considerations. This is compounding for a large festival such as the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival so planning ahead is key. With this in mind - when is the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival? That is a question that is always easy to answer as the festival always takes place on the last weekend of April through the first weekend of May.

Of course, those will be different dates depending upon the year. For the 2022 event, that meant the event was held April 29 to May 8 and for the 2023 Jazz Fest scheduled next year, the event will be held April 28 to May 7. The 2022 festival took place at the now legendary and included the headline acts such as; Willie Nelson, Stevie Nicks, The New Orleans Klezmer All Stars, Jimmy Buffett, Erykah Badu, Melissa Etheridge, Big Freedia, Elvis Costello, Busta Rhymes, Chris Isaak, The Avett Brothers and Randy Newman, who made the returning 2022 event one to remember for fans who flocked to the Fair Grounds Race Course in huge numbers.

Who Owns the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival?

The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation owns the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and has done since its inception in 1970. As such, all proceeds from the festival go to the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation. The most prominent use of those funds can be found in the local radio station, WWOZ, 90.7 FM, the “Guardians of the Groove.”

The WWOZ New Orleans radio station is the city’s Jazz and Heritage music station, streaming worldwide on the Internet as well. In addition to the radio station, the Foundation sponsors many educational programs to promote the preservation and growth of Jazz in the city. The festival has attracted huge praise for its commitment to supporting not only music but the wider community. For example, the festival owners have received acclaim for supporting local charities, homeless and relief efforts across the state and city of New Orleans.

Following the horrific impact of Hurricane Katrina, festival owners the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation reached out to Royal Dutch Shell to help offset some of the festival production costs that were not a priority for the city at the time given the disaster. The oil company agreed to become the main sponsor of Jazz Fest 2006, and they have sponsored every festival since then, which has allowed for the festival to massively increase revenue streams and for the festival owners to continue to contribute to worthy causes as well as supporting jazz music, culture and the growth of New Orleans more generally.

What Stages are the at New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival?

The utterly unique appeal of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival lies in its sheer scale. This is a huge event and, to reflect that, the scale of the venue is also huge. Jazz Fest 2022 boasted several stages and tents dedicated to different genres of music and performances. These stages hosted a variety of activities that feature live demonstrations, panel discussions, and interviews with performers, celebrity attendees, event organizers and local officials. Currently, there are 14 stages for the event, which all offer a unique purpose from the main stage to the place where you can see live interviews and even cooking tutorials.

The stages at Jazz Fest are:

The Acura Stage – Main Stage

Gentilly Stage – Secondary Main Stage

The Congo Square Stage – Afro-centric and World Music

Blues Tent – Blues Music

Jazz Tent – Contemporary Jazz Music

Gospel Tent – Gospel Musicians and Performers

Kids Tent – Children’s Music and Performances

The Sheraton New Orleans Fais Do Do Stage – Cajun & Zydeco Music

Jazz & Heritage Stage – Mardi Gras Indians + Brass Band Performances

Allison Miner Music Heritage – Panel Discussions, Fest Information + Live Interviews

Food Heritage Stage – Live Cooking Demonstrations

Cajun Cabin – Live Cajun Cooking Demonstrations

Economy Hall Tent – Traditional New Orleans Jazz

Lagniappe Stage – A potpourri of sound and style

What Time Does the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival Start?

So, now you know a little bit more about this truly iconic festival, you're probably wondering; what time does the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival start? Well, each day the festival is held, the gates open from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. and this is also the festival hours. Jazz Fest organizers are pretty strict in terms of scheduling and everything usually runs as advertised so these hours won't change, barring something pretty spectacular which will always be communicated to fans.

New Orleans is Louisiana's largest and most populous city, without even taking into account the number of visitors from out of state or even from all corners of the world that will only add to how busy the area will be. With this in mind and with the time of the festival noted, you should always plan accordingly in terms of your travel arrangements so that you don't miss your favorite act or any of the fun to be had throughout the days at this amazing event.

What to Wear to New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival

When it comes to festivals, what to wear is always something that is at the top of most people's considerations. Festivals are places to really be yourself and get rid of your inhibitions, so there is no right answer to the question; what should I wear to the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival? The only answer is - anything you want. Anything that makes you feel comfortable. Anything that makes you feel good.

You should, though, try and be practical. Check out the weather forecast beforehand. Layers are your friend at any festival and you can always take them off if you get too hot. Comfortable shoes, sunglasses, and beauty products with SPF are also essential. Prepare for hot NoLa weather, fast-moving crowds, and hours upon hours of dancing next to your friends and also strangers. Be creative and most of all remember to have fun, whatever you choose to be your festival outfit.

Attendance History at New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival

When the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival was first held way back in 1970 (over half a century ago, amazingly) the crowd of people that turned up was a paltry 350. This figure was less than the amount of event staff that were on hand to ensure that the festival went without a hitch. However, event organizers were not worried as they knew they were on to something big. By the time of the third festival in 1972, crowds had grown comfortably into the many thousands and a new venue was required to host what was growing into one of the largest festivals in the United States and would soon rival festivals across the world.

Fast forward to today and the 475,000 attendance figure in 2019 and 2022 is the highest total attendance for Jazz Fest since Hurricane Katrina struck the city in 2006. The highest attendance in Jazz Fest's history was in 2001. An estimated total of 650,000 fans passed through the gates during the seven days of the festival and this number has not yet been surpassed, although subsequent events have come close.

In 2006, the first Jazz Fest after Katrina drew 350,000 fans from all across the United States and the world, even as the city was still heavily damaged from the storm and coming to terms with the devastation it had caused. In the years that followed, crowds went steadily upward to reach 460,000 in 2015. Heavy downpours of rain and unpredictable weather in New Orleans during the next two years knocked attendance back down to 425,000.

In 2018, attendance climbed to approximately 450,000, then increased slightly again in 2019 to boast figures of around 460,000. However, the global COVID-19 pandemic meant that the festival was forced to take a two-year hiatus for the first time in its long history and the event was canceled in 2020 and 2021.

Much to the delight of Jazz Fest fans all over the world, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival returned in April this year (2022) and was a massive hit drawing almost half a million people to its venue. Looking forward, the 2023 Jazz Fest is scheduled for April 28 to May 7. Unlike this year, the festival won't conflict with Mother's Day, which falls on May 14 in 2023 and will likely see even bigger crowds as the popularity of this iconic event continues to grow and grow. New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival has been giving music fans moments to remember for over 50 years and shows no sign of letting up anytime soon.

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