The Jazz & Heritage Stage, above, and the photo on front of music fans at the Gentilly Stage from the 2014 jazz fest. Photos courtesy of Michael Hartwig.
Since its beginning in 1970, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival has featured a whole lot more than just jazz. Blues, funk, folk, rap, country, bluegrass, gospel, Cajun, Latin, and Afro-Caribbean music are all featured at the festival, which sprawls across two long weekends of music.
This year’s festival, beginning this Friday, April 22 and ending on Sunday, May 1, is no exception. Headliners include Van Morrison, Stevie Wonder, Pearl Jam, Elvis Costello, Bonnie Raitt, Neil Young, Paul Simon, Snoop Dogg, Nick Jonas, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, among dozens of other legendary and high-quality artists.
But unlike most large festivals, this one is also about paying tribute to its host city and the world of music it opened up to the rest of the world, and the heart of the lineup are the NOLA artists who call the city home. Whether it’s a New Orleans legend or a newcomer keeping up the city’s musical traditions, here are five acts from the Big Easy that you won’t want to miss.
- Dr. John
Inspired by traditional blues artists like Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, with a touch of Mardi Gras and voodoo thrown in for good measure, Dr. John has been a local legend for more than 4 decades. “Right Place Wrong Time” gave him his only pop hit in 1973, but since then Dr. John has appeared in the classic film The Last Waltz and has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. His colorful stage presence is matched only by his choice selection of songs.
- Irma Thomas
As the “Soul Queen of New Orleans,” Irma Thomas knows a thing or two about heritage. Her 1963 record “Ruler of My Heart,” which she co-wrote, was later redone by Otis Redding as “Pain in My Heart.” She followed up with “Wish Someone Would Care,” which reached the Billboard Top 20. Her version of “Time is On My Side” inspired the Rolling Stones to record their own version of the tune, which became their first big hit. Her impossibly soulful vocals have carried her career all the way up to her last studio album, in 2008. Thomas is a Jazz & Heritage Festival staple, and is not to be missed.
- Trombone Shorty and Orleans Avenue
Trombone Shorty became a bandleader at the age of six, and at his present age of 30 is quickly becoming a NOLA institution. He has played with Jeff Beck, Cee Lo Green, Lenny Kravitz, and U2, among many others, and has released nine studio albums. Don’t miss the chance to see an up-and-coming legend in his hometown.
- Preservation Hall Jazz Band
Performing traditional New Orleans-style jazz, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band takes its name from a venue in the famed French Quarter. First formed in 1961, the band has seen the best jazz players in the city come and go through its ranks. More than 50 years later, they still attract the best players, so you don’t want to miss this incredible band.
- Tribute to Allen Toussaint
NOLA legend Allen Toussaint passed away in November 2015, but the festival plans to honor him with a tribute by Bonnie Raitt, Dr. John, Aaron Neville, Davell Crawford and the Allen Toussaint band. A songwriter and producer known for credits like LaBelle’s “Lady Marmalade,” Toussaint began his career in 1958. In his long career, he collaborated with everyone from Paul McCartney to Elvis Costello, and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Don’t miss the hometown tribute to this beloved star.
And of course, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival wouldn’t be complete without local Aaron Neville. If you missed out on seeing him at the Tampa Bay Blues Festival, be sure to catch him in his hometown of New Orleans. It’s just a quick flight from Tampa Bay to NOLA on Southwest Airlines. Fest days for 2016 are April 22, 23, 24 and then April 28, 29, 30 and May 1.
Jessica Wheeler is the music columnist for AliveTampaBay.