All That Jazz 3-19-2004

The good times roll at the New Orleans jazz festival

By: Lisa Jennings

It would be difficult to spend a day in New Orleans without hearing music. But for 10 days each year, the town becomes a musical mecca with what seems like live performances in every nook and cranny.

The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, which this year is scheduled for April 23-May 2, is one of the nation’s most-beloved music events. It was created in 1970 to celebrate the diverse range of music for which the region is known.

“The idea was to create an event that would draw people to New Orleans,” said Louis Edwards, the festival’s associate producer. “It was indigenous entertainment packaged in such a way that it would have international appeal.”

And it worked. The event has grown to include a wide range of internationally known performers, from the Sinatra-style crooner Harry Connick Jr. to down-and-dirty bluesman Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown.

Headliners this year include Bonnie Raitt, B.B. King, Lenny Kravitz, Emmylou Harris, Branford Marsalis and Ray Charles. There will also be a slew of local stars, such as the Neville Brothers, Buckwheat Zydeco and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band.

As a tourist draw, Jazz Fest is second only to Mardi Gras, but tourists who come for the music festival tend to spend more money, said Beverly Gianna, vice president of communications for the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Last year, for example, an estimated 503,000 attended Jazz Fest, 216,000 of which were out-of-towners, resulting in an economic impact of $300 million for the city. According to Gianna, hotel occupancy rates during the festival commonly reach 99 percent.

By comparison, the last five days of Mardi Gras in 2003 brought in fewer than 400,000 out-of-town visitors, who only generated an estimated $220 million.

But Mardi Gras is primarily about “parade watching,” said Gianna. Jazz Fest is about hearing music at venues all over town.

The main events fall on the weekends (April 23-25 and April 29-May 2) at what is called the Louisiana Heritage Fair at the Fair Grounds Race Course. In addition to performances throughout the day on 12 stages over the 40-acre property, there are craft fairs, as well as more than 100 booths serving food.

There is also an evening concert series. And because the town is full of musicians, clubs and other venues also tend to offer terrific shows that may not be officially part of Jazz Fest.

Prices for the evening concert performances vary. Daily Heritage fair tickets are $20 in advance ($1.50 for kids under 12) and $25 at the door ($2 for children). Tickets are available through Ticketmaster (800-488-5252;

Destination Management Inc. is the official tour operator for the event, offering packages with hotel, event tickets and transfers. Parking at the fair grounds is limited, so the company also offers shuttle service from the Sheraton and another mid-city location.

“We work with over 40 hotels in the city,” said Bob Bourg, Destination Management vice president and general manager. They also offer hotel-only rates, but not air, and everything is commissionable.

Some Western agents said they try to avoid special events when sending clients to New Orleans because of the crowds. But others said such events can be a profitable part of a pre- or post-cruise package for those shipping out of New Orleans to the Caribbean.

Clayton Whitehead, vice president of Sports Leisure Vacations in Sacramento, Calif., for example, said he takes groups on tours of New Orleans during Mardi Gras, but also on tours of the region.

This spring, for example, he is taking a group on a Music of the Mississippi tour that begins with three days in New Orleans and travels up through the Delta to Memphis.

The South “has come to be a very profitable region,” said Whitehead. “And New Orleans is an easy sell.”

Jazz Fest officials say those who attend the event once tend to return as many as five times in later years.

“People who come to the festival are really passionate about it,” said Edwards. “It’s one of the places where you can engage with the most fun-loving audience.”