Swinging to the beat of the Jazz Fest in New Orleans

The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival spans seven days with a break in the middle to allow participants time to recover. There is everything on stage right down to the energetic gospel groups.
The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival spans seven days with a break in the middle to allow participants time to recover. There is everything on stage right down to the energetic gospel groups. Paul Reid

YOU arrive at Louis Armstrong International Airport and the cab driver taking you into town can't stop raving about a hot, new band called Five Italian Greengrocers in a Runaway Volkswagen.

Welcome to New Orleans, baby. Laissez les bon temps roulez - let the good times roll.

Jazz, blues, cajun, zydeco, R&B, gospel, rock, funk, soul, Latin - they all thrive in N'Awlins, as the locals drawl this party town's name.

The cultural and racial melting pot in America's south that gave birth to jazz has rhythm in its soul, a mischievous glint in its eye and alcohol in its blood. How many other cities have declared an 'official cocktail'? It's the Sazerac, invented in the city in the 1800s.

Every night is party night in infamous Bourbon St, where conservative middle America comes to do things they wouldn't dare do at home.

But go for the music and even in the raucous French Quarter there are treats to be found if you look. Preservation Hall is alcohol-free and attracts talented musicians paying respect to traditional jazz styles.

Music permeates the city. Every night you can hear a range of great bands in bars and clubs in Frenchmen and South Rampart streets. Buskers are everywhere in the Quarter and invariably very good. In this city they have to be.

Walk past a store making and selling chocolate fudge and the pair behind the counter burst into a beautiful a capella version of the '60s Motown hit My Guy.

Above all there's Jazz Fest, a seven-day feast of popular and traditional music that's well worth travelling halfway around the world to experience.

The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival began in 1970 in the city's Congo Square but quickly outgrew that and relocated to the 59-hectare Fair Grounds racecourse a few kilometres out of the CBD.

It now spreads over two weekends (three days, a break, then four days) and hosts 12 different musical stages - two large outdoor venues for the bigger acts, smaller open air stages, tents for traditional and contemporary jazz, blues and gospel, a kids tent and smaller venues inside the racecourse grandstand for performances or interview sessions with performers or music historians.

In between there are more than 70 food stalls. No two vendors can serve the same dish and they have to audition for the opportunity to join the Fest food list. At this year's Jazz Fest in April-May there were some 480 different musical performances over the seven days.

You can't possibly see and hear everything, so from time to time just surrender to serendipity and drop in on someone you've never heard of.

One must-see is the Gospel Tent, especially on a Sunday morning, when voices soar and bodies sway in unison.

The dates for Jazz Fest 2014 are April 25-May 4.

And those 'Italian greengrocers'? They'd probably disbanded by the time we'd paid our taxi fare but we did get to see our next favourite band: Jon Cleary and the Diabolical Fandangos.

*The writer paid his own way.

Topics:  music festival new orleans travel

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