Music Commentary: New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Fest versus French Quarter Fest

By Clea Simon

Which is the best fest? It’s up for grabs.

Professor Potts (of Rory Danger and the Danger Dangers) at the French Quarter Festival. Photo: Clea Simon

This weekend, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Fest will be convening again on the Fair Grounds Race Track. But I will not be among the tens of thousands crossing the infield this year, drawn by a plaintive fiddle refrain or the heart-pumping syncopation of a brass band. Although I’ll undoubtedly tune in to some of the sets community radio station WWOZ broadcasts from the 10-day festival, this year, my husband and I opted instead to try the smaller, free four-day French Quarter Fest as an alternative way to experience Louisiana’s unique musical culture. (See Jon Garelick’s Arts Fuse feature on the FQF.)

For years, friends had raved about French Quarter Fest (FQF), citing its lower-key atmosphere, free admission, and convenience. Given that advance tickets for the NO Jazz and Heritage Fest (Jazz Fest) started at $85 per day this year (packages are available) and crowds expand exponentially as bigger names (including, this year, the Rolling Stones) topped the bills, it seemed time.

Founded in 1984 to draw residents back into the French Quarter, following the city’s World’s Fair and extensive sidewalk repairs, FQF has become its own draw for non-locals as well, what with 25 stages presenting a variety of musical acts (along with culinary demonstrations). It is now competing with the older Jazz Fest (first held in 1970) for tourist dollars.

After our flight landed at Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport the Wednesday before FQF, delayed by horrible storms that had flooded streets and produced a tornado in nearby Slidell, at least one advantage of the younger fest was clear. Attendees can come and go to FQF, easily returning to their hotels — or the local bars, shops, and restaurants — in the case of inclement weather. Except for holders of the pricey premium weekend or Fest-long packages (such as the Brass Pass or Big Chief package), Jazz Fest attendees are not allowed reentry to the Fair Grounds.

As its name implies, FQF is built into the city, with stages spread from Canal Street to the New Orleans Jazz Museum at the Mint, roughly a mile apart. At least two stages are set up on the Mississippi River levee, allowing for both a breeze and an unforgettable vista, with others in adjoining parks and parking lots. There are bag checks — a sign of the times — but access is relatively quick and easy.

That’s not the case with Jazz Fest, which for the past few years has generated long entry lines — in part because of the metal detector screenings that accompany its bag checks. Even its official moniker — journalists writing about Jazz Fest are now asked to refer to it as “sponsored by Shell” — speaks of a larger, more corporate entity. And yet…

Experience — and size — count for a lot, specifically the sheer volume of content, from musical acts to culinary offerings from restaurants across the state (the pheasant, duck, andouille gumbo from Prejean’s of Lafayette!) to the crafts areas where artisans offer everything from tchotchkes to hand-crafted instruments.

Amanda Shaw on the Chevron Stage of the French Quarter Festival. Photo: Clea Simon

Focusing specifically on the music, the festivals’ (and our) raison d’être, Jazz Fest has a clear edge. We don’t attend because of the big national acts, but for stages and/or tents devoted to gospel, traditional jazz, Cajun and zydeco, etc., Jazz Fest simply offers more — and that means more of the local and regional acts we come down from New England to see. Yes, FQF this year had the up-and-coming trad jazz revivalists Tuba Skinny, bounce star Big Freedia, soul queen Irma Thomas (still tearing it up at 82), and the unclassifiable sounds of Belgian-born cellist Helen Gillet. But those acts will also be playing at the Jazz Fest, along with Creole greats Beausoleil avec Michael Doucet, neo-swing Meschiya Lake, pianist Jon Cleary, and literally dozens of other, lesser-known acts, including many of New Orleans’s unique and unparalleled Mardi Gras Indian gangs (such as the Semolian Warriors, 7th Ward Creole Hunters, and Golden Comanches) and incredibly funky brass bands. (It’s also worth noting that each year Jazz Fest features acts from a host country — this year, it’s Colombia.)

With so much going on at Jazz Fest, access can be a problem. We’ve rarely had any trouble getting up close to the smaller stages, such as the Cajun/zydeco Fais Do Do stage, or snagging seats in the trad jazz haven Economy Hall. But huge crowds tend to camp out in front of the Fair Grounds’ two biggest stages, filling the equivalent of a football field with their folding chairs and making it nearly impossible to “browse” those stages as we would others. In past years, we’ve dropped by the edge of the packed-in crowd to catch a tune or two from acts like Stevie Nicks and Bruce Springsteen, but the crush is unpleasant — in part, because so many of the so-called music fans seem more intent on drinking and socializing than enjoying the tunes.

That’s not the case at FQF, where we got up close to several stages, dancing (in our way) to the local pan-Latin rhythms of Muévelo and savoring sardonic rocker Alex McMurray’s finely wrought lyrics from comfy seats in the grass. Still, the longer distance between FQF stages made catching multiple acts problematic: Even at its most crowded, it’s been easier to cross the Fair Grounds infield from, say, Economy Hall to Fais Do Do than to work our way up crowded Decatur Street from the Chevron stage (in the Jax Brewery parking lot) to the Mint.

FQF can get crowded too. Hometown heroes like Tuba Skinny and John Boutté packed the pretty little park at Jackson Square, and the local nature of the crowd may well have inspired their stellar performances. (Boutté sounded particularly roused, chastising the crowd: “Only 20 percent of you voted, and now look what we’ve got! An insurrectionist [as governor]… I was an [Army] officer. I know what it means to betray your oath.”) And the crowd for Irma Thomas was as large as anything at Jazz Fest, although the audience was as engaged and enthusiastic as any I’ve ever seen with festgoers of every age, gender, and ethnicity singing along.

At both festivals, the high points are the unexpected ones. We’ve often stumbled across a brass band or a Mardi Gras Indian performance on the smaller Jazz and Heritage stage at Jazz Fest that became a favorite or have been drawn in by an unexpected and irresistible beat (as when the indigenous Canadian electronic group A Tribe Called Red, now called the Halluci Nation, got us dancing in a mid-field tent). At FQF, a text from a friend alerted us that Marla Dixon — a trumpet player and singer with the range and heft of a contemporary Bessie Smith whom we’d caught with Tom McDermott in a club the night before — was performing with the Shake ’em Up Jazz Band at the Omni Royal Orleans Stage, a tiny trailer parked on Royal Street. Serendipity, and a certain amount of flexibility, remain key to both.

Since WWOZ archives two weeks of its broadcasts online, I’m now catching up on the TBC brass band’s killer FQF set. But I must confess that I sorely missed hearing the near-constant programming of brass bands and Mardi Gras Indians at Jazz Fest, not to mention the multiple parades that send such bands as well as high-steppers and other New Orleans cultural phenomena across the grounds multiple times each day. Is my regret fueled by the fact that Jazz Fest is just kicking off, while FQF is over for the year? Possibly.

As we have for years now, we hope to return next spring to enjoy the music, meet up with friends, and just immerse ourselves in the Crescent City’s distinctive vibe. Which fest will we attend? That’s an open question.

Somerville-based novelist Clea Simon is the author of the upcoming amateur sleuth mystery Bad Boy Beat. She can be reached at

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