A music lover’s guide to New Orleans

Published in News.com.au, June 2018

Stroll down Bourbon Street any given night and you will hear music heaving from every second doorway. Bourbon Street is the wild heart of New Orleans’ historic French Quarter, and the French Quarter is the beating heart of the city built on sound. This is The Big Easy, the birthplace of jazz. And there is no place in the world quite like it. 

New Orleans was carved out of swamp lands where the mighty Mississippi empties out into the Gulf of Mexico; colonised by the French, occupied by the Spanish, and bought by the United States in the famed Louisiana Purchase of 1803. A major port town, New Orleans absorbed the vibrant cultures of South and Central America, and the rhythms of Africa, which were carried by the slaves who were transported through the city and those that came to call New Orleans home.

From this melting pot of influences sprang a unique music culture; a swaggering, kaleidoscopic beast. New Orleans was home to the first opera house in America, opened in the mid-19th century. Formal balls brought the timbre of classical music to the city’s music halls and ballrooms, while out in the streets parade and marches swayed to a Latin beat, and steam boats along the Mississippi pumped pipe organ notes onto the breeze. In Congo Square, on the edge of what is now the Tremé neighbourhood, African slaves gathered on Sundays to stomp their feet, play drums and chant for freedom.

In the late 19th century, all these influences coalesced into one unique sound — jazz. It evolved from ragtime, borrowed heavily from New Orleans’ rich cultural stew and added the unique ingredient of improvisation; the ability to play a feeling rather than follow the notes. Buddy Bolden is recognised as the first jazz musician and his house is still standing at 2309 First Street. Jelly Roll Morton was another great originator of the sound, a composer who played in the early part of the century at the drinking dens in Storyville, including Frank Early’s My Place Saloon at 1216 Bienville Street, one of the few remaining buildings from that turn of the century scene.

Of the many jazz greats emerged from New Orleans, there was none greater than Louis Armstrong, Satchmo himself, who brought the New Orleans sound to the masses. As a child, Louis was dared to fire a pistol into the air outside the Little Gem Saloon on South Rampart Street — a move that saw him incarcerated in a children’s home, which is where he learned to play the horn. Though the original Little Gem Saloon closed down in the 1960s, it reopened just a few years ago as a hopping jazz venue, featuring the best local talent on a nightly roster. Louis Armstrong Park is also host to regular music performances, a 32-acre stretch not far from the French Quarter, founded in 1980 in honor of New Orleans’ favorite son. 

History buffs can follow the birth of jazz block by block with this fantastic guide, but the best way to experience living history is in the music that engulfs New Orleans — on the streets and in its incredible music venues. All through the French Quarter, on every corner, you’ll find buskers, horn players and marching bands playing popping tunes, in addition to some bustling live music venues that welcome the tourist hoards. For true jazz buffs, Preservation Hall on St Peter Street is a hallowed institution, where veteran musicians gather every night for an unamplified performance in a worn, atmospheric room. And audiences gather reverently — the queues run around the block! The other sweet spot for authentic jazz is Frenchman Street, just east of the French Quarter, where jumping cafes like Three Muses, Blue Nile and The Spotted Cat Music Club host jazz trios and ensembles every night. Uptown, The Maple Leaf Bar is another much beloved spot, an intimate club with a dive bar feel where jazz and blues are played for a very serious, very sweaty crowd of dancers. 

Jazz is the prevailing flavour in New Orleans, but the city has embraced and celebrated many music forms in its time. Fats Domino is a native son, as was Professor Longhair, an icon of rhythm and blues piano. In 1977, the Professor had a music venue opened in his name in the East River District, Tipitina’s Uptown, which is still open and known for marathon funk and jazz piano sessions that stretch into dawn. Over in Gert Town, the Rock ‘n Bowl hosts rockabilly, swing and zydeco — a fitting soundtrack to the activity on the venue’s bowling lanes — while Chickie Wah Wah in Mid-City is home to singer-songwriter folk and Americana. For the best young New Orleans brass players, you have to venture slightly further afield, to Bullet’s Sports Bar in Tremé, where horns and RnB reign and the talent is off the charts. Punk and hardcore fans are catered for at Siberia in the 7th Ward, while those that love gospel are invited to join a Sunday Brunch performance at the French Quarter’s House of Blues.

For all manner of music fans, the best time to visit New Orleans is during Mardi Gras. Held in late February or early March, the festival runs for two weeks but is concentrated in the five days around the Christian holy day, Shrove Tuesday. Traditionally a time of indulgence and plenty before a period of penitent fasting, Mardi Gras in New Orleans has taken on a whole new meaning. Mardi Gras is a celebration of the New Orleans spirit, more than anything else, with daily parades led by local ‘krewes’ involving floats, beads, riotous colour and music. An already hotter-than-hot city goes supernova during Mardi Gras; a whole week of dancing in the streets, a whole city drunk on music.