Guitar Aficionado

New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival: From Music to Voodoo

We take an opportunity to soak up the city’s legendary music, tantalizing food, and fascination with voodoo.
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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.


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

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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.


Above:Jazz at the Bourbon O Bar

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Where, then, is the city’s colossal musical heritage best observed outside the festival? Certainly not on Bourbon Street, with its dreadful cacophony of massacred classic rock applauded by inebriated yahoos. The answer is “all around.” Take the Old U.S. Mint, for example, located at the French Quarter’s north edge. There, with a walk and a keen eye, you can see and hear the history of all the sounds born in New Orleans, from Negro spirituals, Dixieland, and ragtime to Jelly Roll Morton’s blues. Street bands comprised of banjos, sousaphones, trombones, clarinets, brushes, and such are plentiful, and many are world class, routinely drawing huge crowds while their members barely acknowledge those outside their circle. The musicians are there not to clown but to play, and they take it seriously.

The classically elegant, marble-laden Bourbon Orleans Hotel was a welcome refuge from the street madness. Known as the Orleans Ballroom when it opened in 1817, it became 10 years later the state and house legislative meeting place. In 1881, it was bought by the First Order of Negro Catholic Nuns and used as a convent and orphanage until 1964, when a local developer purchased the lot, restored the building, and opened for business.

Aside from its spacious, elegant lobby, the hotel’s main attraction is its central courtyard, whose center point is a large, clean, heated pool that’s visible from most rooms. Here, far from the madding crowd, one can think, chill, contemplate, and recharge before diving back onto the street or to the festival. If you’re still not ready to brave Bourbon Street when night falls, the hotel’s adjacent Bourbon O Bar beckons you to lounge on oversized comfy sofas, sip their signature Midas Cup made of fresh pureed strawberries, cognac, and champagne, and, on weeknights, listen to Dixieland jazz. Step in front of the building and a taxi appears, as if by magic. You may find larger or smaller or cheaper or more expensive lodgings, but the Bourbon Orleans is undeniably right smack in the center of the action and is therefore ideal.


Above:A Lamborghini LP 560-4—yours to enjoy at NOLA Motorsports Park.

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If you happen to get your fill of bars, festivals, or the streets and wish to cleanse your soul’s palate with some kind of velocity, the newly opened NOLA Motorsports Park will get your speed groove on with its Xtreme Xperience. A quick 20 or so minutes from the French Quarter (depending on traffic), the park operates under a slight Louisiana handicap, that being the flatness of the real estate, which hinders water from draining off the track. On the day I visited the park to step on the gas pedals of a Lamborghini LP 560-4, a Ferrari 458 Italia, and a Porsche 911 GT3, an ark would have been the best way to get from downtown to the track. Once again, the skies had other plans for us, it seemed. Thankfully, by the time we arrived, the sun had returned and evaporated most of the H2O, save for the odd puddle. I got behind the wheels of these three cars in an express version of this new playground, and off we sped.

You don’t need to know how to drive a standard shift—every car is equipped with wheel-mounted paddles, which take almost no time to learn, or you can just go automatic. If you’re a novice unfamiliar with anything more powerful than, say, a Prius, fear not: “Ride-Along Discovery Laps” are included for each driver in the Supercar Track Xperience, one of several packages the track offers, and you can dip your toe for a mere $99.

Go-karts are also available if you’re into that sort of thing, and when you’re through at the track you’ll have a more badass selfie than that one you took with your arm around that lady outside the Cat’s Meow with the 50-foot-high hair and silver-spangled dress and who charged you a buck for the privilege.

Of course, no musical odyssey to New Orleans would be complete without a search for the notorious House of the Rising Sun. Where exactly is it, and what is this landmark? The answer is that no one is entirely sure. Like the preponderance of Rick’s Cafés all over Casablanca, each claiming to be the one made famous in the iconic 1942 film starring Humphrey Bogart, the legend of the House of the Rising Sun is as much myth as fact.

A claim, however, has been laid by Wendy Portier Herridge of Louisiana and Kevin Herridge of Romford, London, in the House of the Rising Sun Bed and Breakfast. The dwelling was built in 1870, destroyed once after the Great Fire of Algiers in 1895, and damaged anew by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The repaired inn has 11-foot ceilings, pine floors, and swing benches on the front and back porches. Eric Burdon has stayed there on numerous occasions, and if it’s good enough for the guy who belted out “Mother, tell your children not to do what I have done,” it’s good enough for the rest of us.

New Orleans has managed the unique feat of changing with our ever-more-rushed, net-infested lives, but it has also remained its traditional self without trying too hard. The city is rooted to its truly glorious, innovative musical traditions encompassing jazz, blues, Cajun, and other music of the people, without which rock and roll might never have been born at all. For that, we are eternally grateful.

Want to read more from this issue? Order your copy of Guitar Aficionado's September/October 2016 issue today by clicking HERE.

This is a feature from the September/October 2016 issue of Guitar 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, 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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