A band playing the saxophone

Jazz was once the reserve of dimly-lit clubs. As part of the mainstream today, there’s an annual jazz festival in almost every major city. While all of them have their appeal, there are a few that stand out from the crowd. We take a look at five that are pushing the musical boundaries and are well worth the travel. 

If there’s one city that springs to mind all things jazz, it’s New Orleans. At the festival in 1970, Mahalia Jackson sang here with Duke Ellington to just 350 people. Ever since then, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival has exploded into a joyous riot of music, Creole cooking and good times.

There are 12 official stages to choose from but — this being New Orleans — things don’t stop there. Every bar, restaurant and street corner hosts a nonstop program of jazz, blues, gospel and Cajun rhythms. Last year saw Stevie Wonder close proceedings and the late Tom Petty play one of his last-ever sets. This year’s lineup is guaranteed to be impressive.

Toronto launched its annual jazz festival in 1988. Fast-forward 30 years and it’s built a strong reputation across the globe. As the crowds have grown, so has the musical activity and visitors can now groove to reggae, Jamaican ska, soul, R&B, swing and everything in between.

This entirely free event is spread across the city’s parks, streets, bars and concert halls, and brings together musicians from every continent. The lineup may not feature as many recognizable names as some of the bigger events but the standard is always incredibly high. It also means that visitors will leave with a long list of newly discovered acts to add to their music collection.

Ever since Ray Charles played to a crowd of 12,000 in 1980, this annual celebration of jazz has become the world’s largest. Nowadays, more than two million revellers pour into downtown Montreal for the 10-day festival, which sees almost every public space transformed into a live venue.  

Whether it’s listening to a big band in the sunshine or watching a jazz superstar play in the epic Théâtre Maisonneuve, there are more than 650 available gigs. Also, many of them are free. Given its scale, it attracts some of the biggest names in the business—the 2018 bill already includes José González, Nils Frahm and Ólafur Arnalds. Headline acts are to be announced soon and there are some intriguing rumours swirling.

Perched on the banks of Lake Geneva with views of the mighty Chablais Alps, you’d struggle to find a more scenic spot for a jazz festival. Founded in 1967, this Swiss favourite has welcomed the likes of Miles Davis, Nina Simone and Ella Fitzgerald, and remains an annual pilgrimage for jazz fans.

Spread across the entire town, there are a dizzying number of gigs and activities to attend. These include musician-led workshops, jazz cruises on the lake, jazz-infused train journeys and late-night jams. This usually sleepy town is transformed every summer and it’s highly recommended to book accommodation as soon as possible. Keep your ears to the ground for line-up announcements in the coming months.

Celebrating its sixth year in 2018, this is one of the newest festivals on the circuit. Despite its relative youth, it has quickly attracted the jazz community’s attention with its impressive annual lineups. The Love Supreme alumni already includes Herbie Hancock, George Benson, The Jacksons, Jamie Cullum and Gregory Porter. This year’s roster is still being confirmed, but it’ll likely include some big names.

Set among the rolling fields of southeast England, this three-day event is just an hour’s drive from Central London. While day tickets are available, most people opt to camp in the luxury bell tents on site or stay at a traditional British B&B in the medieval town of Lewes. Given the unpredictable nature of the British weather, the latter is recommended.

Jazz swept through Japan in the 1920s when clubs and dancehalls sprung up across Kyoto, Tokyo and Osaka. Today, local musicians have taken the tenets of American jazz and added their own twist, making for a totally unique sound. There’s no better place to get accustomed to the genre than the Tokyo Jazz Festival.

Now in its 17th year, the weekend gathering welcomes bands and solo artists from across the country, as well as a host of international acts. Indoor gigs take place in the NHK Symphony Hall and there’s a cluster of stages under the golden gingko trees in Yoyogi Park for when the sun shines. Many events are free but it’s advised to book well in advance for the ticketed concerts.

This is just a small selection from the festival circuit but any of these events will open your eyes to the genre. They are perfect for everyone from clued-up aficionados to boogie and bebop first-timers.  Now’s a good time to start thinking about travel plans.

The early sound of jazz began to filter out of New Orleans at the turn of the 20th century as communities began fusing the sounds of America and Africa. By 1920, it had established itself as a major form of musical expression and its upbeat rhythms and uplifting horns swept the globe in a wave of post-depression positivity.  In the following decades, musical legends like Miles Davis, Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald took it further into the mainstream. Today it continues to be one of the most-loved musical forms and has influenced almost every contemporary artist, from the Rolling Stones to Jay Z. With so many sub-genres, there’s now a type of jazz that’s guaranteed to suit every musical taste.