In the spring, a music lover's fancy turns to thoughts of New Orleans. In particular, as Mardi Gras recedes in the rearview mirror and April looms large, it's nearly impossible for a fan of American roots music not to ponder a pilgrimage to the Crescent City.
There, in the city where jazz was born, the Southern-fried but remarkably eclectic, wholly intertwined music, food and drink culture remains a thing of beauty, giving the Mississippi River port town a vibe unlike anywhere else. The bohemianism and quirkiness coupled with inimitable cuisine have survived a century or more of tourist onslaught, not to mention disastrous floods.
That culture, handily captured in the musician-studded HBO dramatic series Treme, has given rise to two sprawling multiday festivals — the French Quarter Festival and the Jazz and Heritage Festival. Each offers a seemingly nonstop, celebratory blast of sounds associated with the city as well as bayou country.
While both festivals feature generous helpings of jazz, blues, R&B, funk, gospel, Latin, folk, Cajun and zydeco music, along with crawfish dishes of every imaginable variety, it's easy to tell the two apart.
French Quarter Fest, celebrating its 30th anniversary with this year's event, April 11-14, is free, with more than 1,300 musicians playing on 20 stages throughout the Vieux Carré and along the Mississippi. The focus is almost exclusively on homegrown talent. The city's trumpet kings, Irvin Mayfield and Kermit Ruffins, are on the bill, along with the durable modern jazz band Astral Project, Meters bassist George Porter Jr., the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, blues guitarist Walter "Wolfman" Washington, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and Big Chief Bo Dollis Jr. and the Wild Magnolias.
The Jazz and Heritage Festival, commonly called Jazz Fest, is always the last weekend in April and the first weekend in May at the historic Fair Grounds Race Course. For the fest's 44th annual edition, thousands of Louisiana-based musicians will share the ticketed event's dozen stages with big-name pop and rock acts, including Fleetwood Mac, the Dave Matthews Band and the Black Keys.
Jazz Fest, which drew a seven-day attendance of 450,000 last year, is known internationally, thanks to stunning performances by the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, Wilco and Neil Young. While some have knocked the inclusion of big-name acts at the fest, some fans of those artists inadvertently have warmed to the hometown heroes — the Radiators, the Neville Brothers, Anders Osborne — on the same stages.
"You've got people from all the world who go back to their cities and say, 'Hey, I went to see Billy Joel but you've got to' see this guy Jon Cleary who went on right before him,' " said Mark Samuels, owner of Basin Street Records, the long-running New Orleans label. "Or 'I was at the House of Blues and it was a showdown between Irvin Mayfield and Kermit Ruffins, and Wynton Marsalis showed up and played.' Things like that happen."
French Quarter Fest may not have as big an international buzz as Jazz Fest, but the former event draws more people over a shorter period of time, with an estimated attendance of 574,000 in 2012.
And the festivals cumulatively raise the profile of the music, still the heart and soul of the city.
"There's a huge variety of music, and a huge variety of people, and even more if you get out at night and you check out places like the Maple Leaf Bar or the Howling Wolf or the Blue Nile," Samuels said. "(Visitors) gain an appreciation for how cool the music is and how great the food is and they see things like our architecture and experience the hospitality that New Orleanians know how to show."
Philip Booth writes about jazz and other music for JazzTimes, DownBeat, Relix, Bass Player and Jazziz.