The beads, parades and revelry of Mardi Gras largely paint The Big Easy’s image outside Louisiana, but the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival better defines this city’s spirit.
Like the improvisational music that pulsates nightly in countless New Orleans clubs, Jazz Fest got its start more than 40 years ago when gospel legend Mahalia Jackson returned to her hometown for a music event known as the Louisiana Heritage Fair in Congo Square, according to www.nojazzfest.com.
Ms. Jackson and Duke Ellington, who also appeared at the event, joined the Eureka Brass Band as it led a line of revelers through the festival grounds. The impromptu parade served as the foundation for Jazz Fest.
Consultants were hired, the nonprofit New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation was formed and planning began for an organized festival.
Mastermind George Wein, a jazz impresario who helped launch the Newport Jazz Festival and the Newport Folk Festival in the 1950s, developed a festival whose concept was based on a huge daytime fair with multiple stages, Louisiana food and a variety of music.
Pete Fountain, Al Hirt, Clifton Chenier, Fats Domino and The Meters were among the acts that performed at the first festival in April 1970, with only 350 people attending.
But news of the event’s artistic success spread quickly, and by 1972, the festival was moved to the Fair Grounds Race Course and drawing thousands.
Today, more than 600,000 converge on the grounds over the two-weekend festival, with some of the biggest names in music history appearing on the main stage. Last year’s acts included Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, the Beach Boys and Foo Fighters.
Headlining acts at this year’s festival include Fleetwood Mac, Billy Joel, Dave Matthews Band and the Black Keys.
And then there’s the food.
The festival’s food merchants must cut a certain culinary mustard to bring their fare to the grounds. Unique and indigenous, the food is like nothing else found on Earth.
Try the crawfish bread or Cajun jambalaya and fried chicken. Oh, and don’t pass up the fried oyster spinach salad, pecan catfish meunière, seafood mirliton casserole or spinach artichoke casserole. And there is alligator, of course.
And be sure to chase it down with a tasty lemonade offering.
With the festival running only until about 7 p.m. nightly, some of the best music stuff happens outside the Jazz Fest grounds.
Similar to South By Southwest in Austin, New Orleans comes alive at night with music anywhere and everywhere, with many of the Jazz Fest performers holding special shows at various venues around town.
New Orleans is an easy seven-hour drive along interstates from Tyler, but for those interested in going, the time to reserve a hotel room is now, because accommodations fill up quickly after Fat Tuesday.