New Orleans jumps with more than Mardi Gras Celebration: Jazz & Heritage Festival draws hundreds of thousands of visitors for 10 days of music, food and tradition.

March 10, 1996|By Syd Kearney | Syd Kearney,HOUSTON CHRONICLE

You can have Mardi Gras beads and king cakes. The real party here is the annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, scheduled April 26 to May 5 this year.

What started in 1970 as a small gathering of about 150 music lovers has grown to a 400,000-strong party with entertainment by some of music's biggest names. Ray Charles, Wilson Pickett, James Taylor, Los Lobos and Blues Travelers were among the more than 4,000 musicians who serenaded crowds last year on the infield of the Fair Grounds Race Track.

And this is more than a one-ring circus. The heritage fare is as impressive as the music.

Visitors can see American Indians weaving baskets, Cajuns constructing fiddles or Mardi Gras artisans doing beadwork on elaborate costumes at the Louisiana Folk Heritage Village. A Contemporary Crafts Village features top-drawer art, jewelry, photography and handcrafted furniture.

And enticements under the Grandstand Tent include cooking classes, a traditional reading of Uncle Remus tales and other programs and demonstrations relating to Louisiana history.

Music at the fairgrounds begins each Friday, Saturday and Sunday morning and ends at about sunset on 11 stages. Popular acts such as the Neville Brothers and Bob Dylan perform at large venues with lawn seating; string quartets and second-liners are showcased in intimate tents.

The schedule allows festival-goers to sample blues, traditional and contemporary jazz, gospel, rock, bluegrass, country-western, ragtime, Cajun, zydeco, folk, Afro-Caribbean and Latin. One reward is discovering an up-and-coming artist: Harry Connick Jr. was just a kid when he began performing at the Jazz & Heritage Festival.

The only real dilemma, besides parking, is choosing which acts to see.

On one Saturday afternoon last year, Better Than Ezra, Joni Mitchell, the Dixie Cups, the Ian Moore Band and the New Leviathan Oriental Foxtrot Orchestra were performing simultaneously.

This diversity has enabled the festival to attract celebrity music fans, too. It's not unusual to be dancing next to someone like John Goodman of "Roseanne" or Ed Bradley of "60 Minutes," both jazz-fest veterans.

Musicians often finish their set and prowl the fairgrounds in search of food and tunes.

Food could well be the star of this show. Dozens of booths feature regional specialties, and no two sell the same thing. Try Louisiana favorites like gumbo, boudin, jambalaya, and red beans and rice, but save room for delicacies that include soft-shell crab po-boys and crab- and crawfish-stuffed mushrooms.

While most of the action at the fairgrounds takes place Fridays through Sundays, a series of evening concerts at other locations in conjunction with the festival has been growing in popularity. These themed performances, which have featured Roberta Flack, Al Green and Dr. John, are held at various venues.

Schedules for 1996 fairground acts, evening concerts and music workshops won't be available until later this month, but festival veterans know they should be making their plans now. Hotels near the fairgrounds and in the French Quarter, about a five-minute drive away, fill up quickly. Most hotels will require a minimum four-night stay during the festival.

Save money by ordering tickets early. Mail-order admission is $10 a day. (It's $15 at the gate.) Evening concert tickets start at $17.50, and these shows often sell out, so it's wise to order by mail. For festival information or a mail-order ticket form, call (504) 522-4786 or write P.O. Box 53407, New Orleans, La. 70153.

Those planning a first trip to the Jazz & Heritage Festival may want to consider a package tour. These include accommodations, festival tickets and transportation to and from the fairgrounds.

Tours by Andrea is the official tour operator of the festival. The firm offers two-night packages that include airport transfers, hotel accommodations, festival tickets for two days and round-trip transfers to the fairgrounds. Prices start at $271 per person (double occupancy). Accommodations are available at many of the popular French Quarter hotels, and extra nights are available. Call (800) 535-2732.

Pub Date: 3/10/96

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