Before you start reading this – click on this highlighted link to listen to the best radio station in the world while you read through this article . . . WWOZ 90.7 FM New Orleans. There, that’s better – It sets the correct mood. Now we may continue . . .
But before I do . . . I would just like to say that I personally think a law should be passed in New Orleans, demanding that all public places playing any form of canned (non-live) music MUST play WWOZ. However, since New Orleans is pretty opposed to fascism in any form – such dictates probably wouldn’t go over very well. It’s a nice thought though . . . hearing New Orleans music, and artists past & present, in local spots rather than the generic pop, rock, techno, hip-hop, etc. It annoys me that so many people who live, visit, work, play, shop and eat in New Orleans don’t listen, support or even know about the brilliant local community radio station which broadcasts the true essence, spirit, and soul of NOLA to the city and the world. Please check it out . . . for the sake of humanity, and the future of our children.
Now – back to our regularly scheduled program. There are a lot of reasons to visit New Orleans, but one particular reason that I believe takes precedence over all the others – MUSIC! Not just to passively listen, or to peruse the “novelty” of hearing genres from another era . . . but to participate, absorb, breathe, and be enlightened, enriched and renewed through the very essence of a creative musical revolution that changed the world – and continues to change the world to this very day!
THE HISTORY . . . or HOW NEW ORLEANS GOT ITS SOUND & SOUL
Something amazing happened in New Orleans in the 19th Century – a pot of cultural, melodic, spiritual, racial, political & rhythmic gumbo was inadvertently put on to simmer around the time of the Louisiana Purchase . . . and by the end of the century, it was beginning to boil.
Sailors, merchants, planters, pirates, bankers, artists, architects, musicians, writers, chefs, servants & slaves from just about every culture and country in the world visited New Orleans as a primary shipping port to import and export goods from the Gulf of Mexico and the Southern mouth of the Mississippi to the rest of America . . . and the world. They came to work, trade, create, party and play in this unique port city of French & Spanish Colonial birth. It was quite different from the rest of America because it wasn’t ruled & dominated by white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants of British descent. This portion of the country was more European, French, Spanish, Caribbean & African. They functioned under the Napoleonic Code rather than US Federal Law, and followed Catholic customs that Protestant Americans didn’t really understand – or agree with – so, things were a little different. The community in New Orleans was more sociable, the culture more diverse, the people a little wilder . . . and perhaps freer than other places in America.
Due to its complex history, Louisiana had a different pattern of slavery compared to the rest of the United States . . . and slavery had a different influence on New Orleans. The French colonists enslaved Native Americans along with those of African descent, thus the Native Americans incorporated runaway slaves into their own communities, and accepted them among their own people. These cultural influences are still found within the Mardi Gras Indians and their unique fusion of Native American and African elements, rhythms, chants, and shouts.
The slaves in Louisiana originated from French & Spanish colonies rather than British; and Europeans were a little less likely to strip slaves of their indigenous culture through humiliation, dehumanization, and proselytization in the same way that the Protestant British did. Slaves were permitted to synthesize their religion with Catholicism (i.e. Voodoo), rather than being forced to discard all aspects of their heritage. African drums, language & culture were banned in other states but were kept alive in Louisiana. Under Spanish rule, a new law called coartación was introduced, which allowed slaves to buy their own freedom – and this tradition continued as leadership changed. Basically, all aspects of African culture & dignity were repressed just about everywhere . . . except for Louisiana, and New Orleans in particular.
Due to the Catholic traditions of the region, slaves were given Sundays “off” from work to do things such as go to church, ply their trade in exchange for money, go shopping, attend the Opera, and join together with other slaves to dance, sing and play drums, gourds, banjo-like instruments, quill pipes, marimbas, tambourines, triangles and European instruments such as the violin, in an open area just outside the French Quarter that was designated as Congo Square.
Different African tribes & traditions mingled, danced, sang and shared in this Sacred space of musical freedom. They sang the call & response work songs & field hollers that had spread via slaves through the Mississippi Delta, adding African and Caribbean rhythms . . . they included the songs they sang at church, heard at the Opera House, listened to at the docks & markets, sung by merchants, peddlers, craftsman, musicians & sailors from around the world – and the melting pot bubbled . . . giving the first, publically shared, ecstatic & sorrowful cries of an unfree people yearning to be free.
Death also has a lot to do with the evolution of this new American music. Funerals in New Orleans were typically accompanied by a brass band, the more prominent funeral homes actually had bands of their own as part of their service offering. The bands would lead the way, playing somber hymns on the way to the cemetery, and more celebratory hymns as they departed. People would gather in the street behind these funeral processions forming a “second line” – often carrying hankies for their tears and umbrellas to guard against the rain or sun. As the music became more celebratory, the hankies and umbrellas became objects to wave and bob as they followed and danced behind the band.
Throughout the nineteenth century, diverse ethnic and racial groups found commonality in their love of music. The celebration of Carnival & Mardi Gras (which American Protestant society had discarded, along with the Catholic church calendar), allowed the city to hold an entire season of balls, dances, and parades – maintaining European traditions while developing new customs out of the cultural fusion that was uniquely and distinctly New Orleans . . . such as dancing in the streets during a “Second Line”.
By the end of the 19th century, these sounds & styles were well simmered into a tasty & unique gumbo – Classical styles were expanding to embrace French, Spanish, Italian, Jewish, Arabic, Irish, Russian, Portuguese and many other folk elements, African & Caribbean rhythms, the Sacred was mixing with the profane, blending the joyful sounds of worship, with the groans & shouts of slave labor, and the blues of despair . . . combining and adapting Old World practices into entirely new forms.
By 1895, American “pop music” consisted primarily of Marching Bands, hymns, ragged time rhythms, cake walks, vocal quartets and minstrel shows. Legend has it that Buddy Bolden blew something unique on his horn – creating the “Big Four” (according to Wynton Marsalis) – while playing with a Marching Band . . . and the music was changed forever. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t quite that simple, and others were involved . . . but since Buddy Bolden spent the latter part of his life in a mental institution, he became a mythical figure with which to pin the development of something so extraordinary.
This music eventually came to be known as “jass” or “jazz” – although musicians of the era claim that the word was never used in New Orleans until record executives in Chicago branded it as such. They just called it ragtime or blues . . . or dance music – but this creative, multi-cultural, syncopated, improvisational, call & response process influenced just about every note that has been played, and every style that has been sung since the onset of the 20th century – building bridges between every culture in the world . . . and the birthplace of this “Jazz Continuum” shall ever remain the city of New Orleans.
This history has become the stuff of legend – and some may quibble with a few details I have listed – but it is difficult to discern the fact from the myth; primarily because we do not have any recorded music which allows us to hear exactly how and when the music changed. You can hear some early influences in the classical works of New Orlean’s native Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829 – 1869), who incorporated multi-cultural influences from New Orleans, South America, and the Caribbean into his compositions. He was the first classical artist to let the “spirit of Congo Square” seep into his work. You can also hear strains of multi-cultural “ragged” rhythms in 1890’s cylinder recordings of Thomas Edison’s various orchestras, as well as the marching bands & compositions of John Philip Sousa. The earliest actual “ragtime” recordings are of Vess L. Ossman, the white “Banjo King” of the 1890’s & early 1900’s . . . as well as the piano rolls of Scott Joplin. Due to the status of African Americans, all early recordings are merely Minstrel Show renditions rather than the true music they had sung & developed over the course of the 19th century. No recorded examples of field hollers (songs sung by slaves) exist prior to the Alan Lomax archive recordings done in the 1930’s, and our earliest recordings of the blues or spirituals upon which jazz was built are from the 1920’s.
By the time the first “jass” record was recorded by the all-white Original Dixieland Jass Band in 1917, the original sound of New Orleans had been developing steadily for 22 years – with no records made, and very little written down. The first person claiming to “write” jazz compositions, rather than merely improvise, was Jelly Roll Morton (1890-1941), and he recorded most of his original music in the 1920s. However, the first person to ever play or develop this thing called jazz is quite a contentious issue. It may be best to just give all the credit to Buddy Bolden – who MAY have made one recording, but no one has ever heard it or knows what happened to it. However, we CAN give credit to Pops (AKA Satchmo / AKA Louis Armstrong) for perfecting it, spreading it around the world, and keeping it alive.
If you’d like to do a little research, and familiarize yourself with the sound of original, traditional New Orleans music prior to visiting the city – you can listen to the artists mentioned, and seek out the recordings of King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet & Kid Ory as a primer … to follow some of the progression within the musical styles of New Orleans over the years I would also suggest Henry “Red” Allen, Louis Prima, Fats Domino, Professor Longhair & The Meters Knowing, recognizing and appreciating what you’re hearing always increases the enjoyment of live music.
If you’d like to take a personal guided journey through jazz landmarks and the musical history of New Orleans, you can’t do better than John McCusker’s Cradle of Jazz Tour. He personally drives you around the city and shares his vast knowledge of landmarks, full of origin stories & anecdotes – visiting all the houses and buildings still standing that were once lived or played in by the men who originally created this thing called jazz.
SO WHERE CAN YOU HEAR THE SOUND & SOUL OF NEW ORLEANS TODAY?
Once you understand how it all began, you start to see & hear the connection between all styles of music developed since the onset of the 20th century. There is a single line that extends from New Orleans to the rest of the world – and thus, if you really listen, you can still hear the echo of Congo Square, as well as the port & streets of New Orleans resonating through all styles of popular music past and present.
Any musician or band you hear in New Orleans reflects this essence – because they don’t necessarily recognize the artificial barriers between genres and styles. Just about ALL modern music is part of the Heritage of New Orleans so you will hear it mixed and matched everywhere there is live music in the city. It is not strange at all to hear people singing & dancing to hymns in bars such as “Just a Closer Walk With Thee”, “I’ll Fly Away”, and of course, “When The Saints Go Marching In” . . . these same bands may play Brass Band & folk tunes from the turn of the century, Traditional Jazz songs from the 1920s, blues & swing classics from the 30’s & 40’s, be-bop & rock and roll from the 50’s, soul & boogaloo from the 60’s, classic rock, funk, pop & disco from the 70’s, hip-hop, pop, R&B, rock & country from the 80’s to today – all with their own unique style and spin. When live music is played using improvisation, call & response and syncopation, it is easy to see how all modern styles are connected at the root . . . all part of the same Continuum that spilled out of the melting pot in the 1890s, and flourished over the past century under the ubiquitous umbrella of “Jazz”.
(If you care to read more about my concept of the “Jazz Continuum”, as well as its history and evolution – here is another article I wrote which goes into greater detail:
Bridges Vs. Walls – What is Jazz? )
One of the best examples of this is found in the music of Troy Andrews, AKA Trombone Shorty. When asked, Troy will define the style of his band as “Super-funk-rock” . . . although it is one of the most direct extensions of what Louis Armstrong was doing in the 1920’s, and what Pops would probably be doing today. Troy’s music is the most popular example of modern New Orlean’s music and can be traced directly back to Congo Square and Treme.
There are many other artists & bands you can see in New Orleans (and touring around the world) demonstrating their own unique styles directly linked to the original essence of jazz – such as (in no particular order) – Harry Connick Jr., Shamarr Allen, Kermit Ruffins, Jon Cleary, Davell Crawford, Rebirth Brass Band, The Soul Rebels, Meschiya Lake, Irma Thomas, The Wild Magnolias, The Meters, Terence Blanchard, Nicholas Payton, Dr. John, Allen Toussaint, John Boutte, Big Sam’s Funky Nation, Joe Krown, Ellis Marsalis, The Astral Project, Glen David Andrews, Sasha Masakowski, The Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Irvin Mayfield, John “Papa” Gros, Jason Marsalis, Dumpstaphunk, Galactic, Kirk Joseph, Donald Harrison, The Hot Club of New Orleans, Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Jon Batiste, Delfeayo Marsalis, Leroy Jones, Cindy Scott, Stanton Moore, James Martin, Tom McDermott, Dr. Michael White, Henry Butler, Jeremy Davenport, James Singleton, Tony Dagradi, Johnny Vidacovich, Steve Masakowski, Tab Benoit, Cyril Neville, George Porter Jr., Walter Wolfman Washington, Christian Scott, John Michael Bradford, Tim Laughlin, The Pfister Sisters, Evan Christopher, Jamil Sharif, Craig “Monk” Ewing, Richard Scott, Louis Ford, Shannon Powell, Gerald French, Charmaine Neville, Khris Royal, Marc Broussard, the Dukes of Dixieland, Bonerama, Buckwheat Zydeco, Honey Island Swamp Band, Washboard Chaz, The Subdudes, The Royal Southern Brotherhood, Davis Rogan, Palmetto Bug Stompers, The Neville Brothers, Wendell Brunious, Mark Braud, Greg Stafford, Lucien Barbarin, Al “Carnival Time” Johnson, David Torkanowsky, James Andrews, Jason Mingledorff, Doreen Ketchens, Roland Guerin, David Roe & The Royal Rounders, Ben Polcer, Jasen Weaver, Kevin Louis, James Westfall, Jesse McBride, Wes “Warm Daddy” Anderson, Victor Goines, Ryan Burrage, Kenneth Terry, Big Al Carson, Helen Gillet, Tom Fischer, Zigaboo Modeliste, June Yamagishi, Marcia Ball, Russell Batiste, Kidd Jordan, Don Vappie, Linnzi Zaorski, Nayo Jones, Phillip Manuel, and many many more . . . and these are just a somewhat small selection of my favorites!
If you are seeking a good New Orlean’s band or musician to go see & hear – you really can’t go wrong with any of the above. They are all master musicians and artists. Seek them out if you are in New Orleans, and definitely, go see them when they come to your town. Many of these artists tour the world more often than they play in New Orleans, and some have relocated to other cities – but all of them will always represent “the 504”. This is the modern crop of musicians that grew from the seeds planted in Congo Square two centuries ago . . . currently spanning the Jazz Continuum of traditional & modern styles of music.
However, the actual Congo Square is a modern day metaphor for how much respect America pays to our collective cultural roots. It is a mostly ignored historic landmark – a bricked over space within a fenced-in park. It is open to the public . . . and I make a pilgrimage there every year. There is a historic marker and a sculpture, but other than a few homeless people sitting on benches – I’ve never seen anyone else there.
It is a Sacred Space to me, however (akin to the Theatre of Dionysus in Greece), the birthplace of America’s only native art form, and you can still feel the soul & rhythm of America’s African ancestors dancing & singing in the air.
The park is appropriately named Louis Armstrong Park . . . since Pops did more to spread the Spirit of Congo Square and New Orleans around the world than anyone else. The park includes a large white (and beautifully lit at night) archway, a large bronze statue of Louis Armstrong, as well as a modernist statue of jazz originator Buddy Bolden, representing his splintered schizophrenic mind. Armstrong Park is a lovely place, albeit a bit sketchy at times, and you can still hear live music in the park during various festivals. However, the Spirit of Congo Square circa 1819 has been codified and institutionalized . . . for better and for worse.
Many variations of jazz history include Storyville as the birthplace of jazz – but, in truth, people were much more interested in the amenities that Storyville had to offer such as prostitution, drugs, gambling, and alcohol. There may have been some so-called “professors” that played ragtime piano in the bars, but contemporaries of Buddy Bolden and other “founding fathers” of the idiom claim that no musicians ever played in Storyville. The real epicenter for what would come to be known as jazz happened a little further Uptown around the intersection of Rampart & Perdido Streets in dilapidated landmarks such as the Eagle Saloon & the Iroquois Vaudeville Theatre, where Louis Armstrong won a talent contest while still a boy. These buildings are also a sad metaphor for the lack of respect we have for our cultural roots and foundations – but thanks to the hard work & dedication of John McCusker, these buildings will hopefully be preserved for generations to come.
You can also still hear the sound and soul of New Orleans in the street during a Second Line Parade or Jazz Funeral. Second Line’s occur throughout the year, but particularly during Mardi Gras season . . . and anytime they can find an excuse to have one. These seemingly spontaneous street parties wind through the neighborhoods, playing music, dancing in the street, and gathering people as they go. It is currently the purest form of the original & timeless New Orlean’s spirit . . . and it definitely gives one a glimpse into the heart of what created America’s original art form – the creative process we call jazz – with all the bells, whistles, drums, dancers, horns, costumes, feathers, banners, bands & krewes.
This is a video I produced of the Satchmo Summerfest Second Line in 2010 – it provides a pretty good overview of the sights, sounds, celebration, and feeling of a New Orleans Second Line.
THE RESTAURANTS & CLUBS
If dancing in the street isn’t really your thing, there are much more civil ways to enjoy the sound of New Orleans. Many of the bars and clubs throughout the city offer live music, and unlike other cities – where a jazz combo might play quietly in the corner – the music tends to be the primary attraction.
The list of my favorite musicians and bands in New Orleans is up above (each one linked to a website or page). I urge you to check any or all of them out for yourself. Some may not cater to your particular taste, or play a style that you are overly familiar with . . . but they are guaranteed to provide you with a unique musical experience that you will not soon forget, and bring you flavors that have simmered in New Orleans for centuries.
To see who is playing on any particular night at any of the various clubs and restaurants throughout the city you can tune into WWOZ for the “LiveWire” which is broadcast at the top of every odd hour . . . or you can visit the Livewire Music Event Calendar online for immediate access.
Another great asset offered in New Orleans to aid in your quest for Live Music is Offbeat Magazine – which you can pick up for free at just about any venue in New Orleans – or, you can do what I do, and buy a subscription that will be delivered to your mailbox each month. They keep me up to date on what is happening musically and culturally in New Orleans over the many months that I must be away. However, when I’m in the city, I am never without my copy of Offbeat due to their complete coverage of live music events . . . which can also be found online by clicking on that link. I discovered most of my favorite artists and bands due to the excellent reviews and news offered in Offbeat. They even let you know when and where your favorite New Orleans bands will be on tour.
There are a lot of great places to eat in New Orleans, and many places to hear fantastic live music. However, if you want to do both things simultaneously, in the same space at the same time – where the listening experience equals the food – there is actually a limited supply. I may be alone in this . . . but I think restaurants should feature live music with the same level of focus & passion that they give to their food. If they do not showcase the band or musicians, do not list their names on local music calendars, do not care about their excellence or quality, or do not place the musicians in a prominent location for all diners to see and hear – I find that disrespectful. I would feel the same way if I went to a concert featuring “real food”, and no one could tell me what was on the menu – nor did they seem to care what they were serving. If I ever hear of a restaurant or venue that disrespects musicians, I respond the same way I do when I get food poisoning . . . I don’t return and warn everyone not to go there.
There are quite a few places to get a Traditional New Orleans Sunday Jazz Brunch – which includes fantastic food with a background ambiance created via live jazz – such as Muriel’s, Antoine’s, Arnaud’s, Buffa’s, Little Gem Saloon, Commander’s Palace, Mr. B’s Bistro, Brennan’s Palace Cafe, Broussard’s, Veranda Restaurant, The Rib Room, Restaurant R’evolution, Crescent City Brewhouse, The Roosevelt Hotel Blue Room, Ralph’s on the Park, Dante’s Kitchen, The Crystal Room at Le Pavilion Hotel, Brennan’s, Cafe Adelaide, Tableau, Galatoire’s, Cafe Amelie . . . just to name a few. Some of these restaurants offer a jazz brunch on Saturdays as well (you’ll need to clink on the links and check their websites), whereas Atchafalaya offers a jazz brunch 5 days a week – Thursday through Monday. The Court of Two Sisters is the only place I know of that offers a jazz brunch every single day of the week! I must admit that I have not had the opportunity to eat, hear or experience many of these brunches because the Sundays I’ve spent in NOLA have been limited. If you take a look at the online reviews of each location, they primarily proclaim that the food is excellent . . . but you rarely hear any specifics about the music or any mention of who or what type of “live jazz” is actually playing. Thus, it could a piano player, an entire band, or just some dude on the bongos. However, if you want the music featured on par with the food, you can’t beat The House of Blues Gospel Brunch. It is a gospel & brunch extravaganza that takes you to church while you eat . . . in fact, it’s so exciting you may forget about your food.
As for a “jazz lunch” – I don’t think they have those. If it has jazz, it’s pretty much a brunch – that’s just the way it is. However, Musical Legends Park on Bourbon Street does include Cafe Beignet which serves breakfast and lunch all day – and they have been known to feature music throughout the day and evening, depending on the time of year. The Steamboat Natchez offers a lunch and a dinner buffet, along with some of the best Dixieland music you’ll hear in the city – but not simultaneously – the jazz cruise features live music on the deck, available before or after you eat.
Moving on to dinner . . . well, I need your help with this one. I would love for locals, tourist, musicians or restauranteurs to inform me if they have experienced dinner and jazz in New Orleans where the music and food have shared equal importance. The Palm Court Jazz Cafe offers a traditional New Orleans menu along with Traditional New Orleans jazz – and is the only place I’ve been where they seem to share equal importance; however, they are closed during the summer. Crescent City Brewhouse offers live jazz and great food; but the band is situated in front of the bar, rather than in the back where the dining takes place. Previously, the best place in the city for fine dining and live jazz was the upscale Club 300 Jazz Bistro, however, it closed several years ago; there are hopes that one day it may return. Arnaud’s Jazz Bistro offers dinner and live jazz, but I can not vouch for it since I have not personally been there. The Three Muses on Frenchman Street also offers an extensive menu along with the best in live jazz, and I believe they place equal importance on both. It is not a large venue and can be a little tight, but the food and music make it very worthwhile. Snug Harbor also offers food and the best live jazz in the city – but the restaurant is separate from the stage, although I think you can order food in both . . . but people usually eat before or after the show, rather than during.
Mind you, venues offering dinner and jazz are not the best places for conversation. There are many many places you can eat and talk, but only a few where you can LISTEN to live music WHILE you eat. So, if you choose the live music option, please leave the chit-chat for later. I’ve wanted to yell that at people sitting next to me for chatting rather than listening, but tend to be too polite – so, I’m stating it here for all the world to see.
If you don’t care about dining whilst delighting in delicious sounds, then you’re in luck. There is a multiplicity of options available where you can hear some of the best live music in the world while enjoying a drink . . . or two. Let’s start on Frenchman Street . . . on just about any given night, you will hear a symphony of sounds coming from various clubs up and down the street. There are approximately 20 places on and around Frenchmen that offer different styles and moods of music – Blue Nile, The Maison, Dragon’s Den, Cafe Negril, The Spotted Cat, d.b.a., Snug Harbor, Three Muses, 30-90 Degrees, Apple Barrel, Vaso, Rare Form, Bamboulas, Balcony Music Club, and Checkpoint Charlies (where you can also do your laundry while you listen & drink), and I have also seen musicians performing live on occasion at Yuki’s, the Bicycle Shop, Mona’s, Cafe Rose Nicaud, Marigny Brasserie, and there is almost always a musician, or a full brass band playing on the street – so, you are sure to find something to suit your taste, or turn you on to something new. One unique aspect of the Frenchmen street scene is the hot & gypsy jazz you’ll hear from the 1920’s, which likewise draws the Nola Jitterbugs and, if you’re lucky, Dancing Man 504, to the floor to swing the roof off and set the atmosphere on fire. My suggestion is that you visit each venue and hang out to hear at least 3 songs before moving on. If you find a band you like, soak it in and hang for the full set – and please make sure to tip them!
NOTE – Many musicians in New Orleans LIVE off of your tips as their only source of income. If you like their music, enjoy what they provide, recognize their skill, appreciate the ambiance, or feel that they have added to your experience whilst walking, eating, shopping, drinking, talking, dancing, etc. – please pay them for it. They may be too polite to ask, and I guarantee that what they are being paid for the gig is not a living wage.
The best actual “jazz club” in town is Snug Harbor Jazz Bistro, where the top artists in modern jazz, straight ahead & mainstream jazz regularly come to play. There are not that many places to hear be-bop or straight ahead jazz in New Orleans – the venues that come to mind are Irvin Mayfield’s Jazz Playhouse, The Davenport Lounge at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, the exquisite Carousel Bar at the Hotel Monteleone, Bacchanal Wine in Bywater, The Little Gem Saloon in the CBD, and Dos Jefes Cigar Bar located Uptown. If you tend towards “jazz snobbery” of the be-bop variety – these are the venues you should probably stick to . . . although I warn you, jazz is fluid and ever growing in NOLA – a band that starts off straight ahead may morph over the evening to include rhythms & quotes from swing to funk, gypsy jazz to gospel, blues shuffle to hip hop, world jazz to fusion, contemporary to avant-garde, and even a little Trad thrown in for good measure. This is also one of the only places you’ll hear Trad bands quoting bop phrases. In the city where jazz was born, it is evident that all modern musical styles grew from it – and have simply circled back to influence it all over again . . . jazz is always fresh, forever modern, and recreated new every time someone syncopates a rhythm or improvises a melody.
If your tastes run more towards the “smooth jazz”, I’m afraid you might be out of luck. Sweet Lorraine’s and Mimi’s in the Marigny both featured smooth and contemporary jazz, but Sweet Lorraine’s was apparently closed (their website is defunct, and I have not seen any music listings there in over a year), and Mimi’s apparently lost their music permit.
Other clubs & restaurants – many of which offer food as well as music – throughout Greater New Orleans, featuring various styles of jazz, blues, funk, trad, etc. are Ralph’s on the Park, The Circle Bar, The Columns Hotel, Chickie Wah Wah, Houston’s, Richard Fiske’s Martini Bar & Restaurant, Bourbon O Bar, The Howlin’ Wolf, The Bombay Club, The Windsor Court Hotel Cocktail Bar, Pearl Wine Company, Big Mama’s Lounge at the House of Blues, Buffa’s, Creole Cookery, The Polo Club Lounge, Dmac’s, Kerry Irish Pub, Bullet’s Sports Bar, Gasa Gasa, Old Point Bar, Siberia, Rock ‘n Bowl, Banks Street Bar & Grill, Le Bon Temps Roule, the Hi Ho Lounge, Vaughan’s Lounge, Freret Street Public House, Ooh Poo Pah Doo Bar, Cafe Istanbul, and Prime Example . . . just to name a few. To find out who, what, when, and what style of music you may encounter on any given evening – please check out WWOZ, Offbeat, or go to the club’s individual websites. If nothing is listed, then give them a call. They can tell you whether or not they serve food; but If they can’t tell you who is playing, or what they play, I wouldn’t go – because they don’t care enough about the music to know. Would you go to a restaurant that couldn’t tell you what kind of food they served?
There are many other venues in New Orleans offering a potpourri of musical stylings drawn from the previously mentioned gumbo pot. Many local bands and musicians do not really categorize their music because they do not like to be tied down to one singular style or genre. You will also hear bands that mix blues & Zydeco with reggae & funk, with a pinch of rock & soul. There are brass bands that play everything from traditional marches to hip hop, and funk bands that flavor their groove with a bit of traditional jazz.
The Maple Leaf Bar is the primary reason I head Uptown in New Orleans because they offer the best funk that I have ever experienced in my life. It doesn’t really matter who is playing – it gets funky every night up in there, and is well worth the taxi ride from the French Quarter. The other truly iconic place for funk in New Orleans is Tipitina’s – but you probably already knew that. If you’ve never been to these two places, I highly suggest it. You won’t be able to sit down and listen passively to a show – the floors are open for standing & dancing – but you probably won’t want to sit down.
I also have to give a shout out to what used to be my favorite club in New Orleans – however, it has not been able to reopen, renovate, or get a music permit since Katrina. Located on Rampart Street directly across from Louis Armstrong Park, there used to be a cozy spot called the Funky Butt. Buddy Bolden wrote a song called the “Funky Butt” (renamed “Buddy Bolden’s Blues”) back at the turn of the century, and he used to play his “new style of music” in a place that they called The Funky Butt (which eventually became a church) – so, the name has a good pedigree, but alas – it no longer exists. It will forever remain in the funky recesses of my mind, until . . . one day – maybe . . . it could open again? Well, We’ll see.
I promised in my first blog entry that I would talk about the few cool places to go on Bourbon Street – and now is the time. The problem with Bourbon Street is that it’s all about novelty, drinking and making a buck – and sadly, the music is merely wallpaper in the process. Most clubs and t-shirt shops pump loud pop, rock, hip-hop and house music through large speakers which fill the street with a cacophony of noise . . . forcing people to shout as they buy their next drink.
However, there are five oasis of live music to be found in this mad cacophony of debauchery. The best is Fritzel’s European Jazz Club which features some of the best Traditional jazz artists in New Orleans – and is one of the only clubs offering ONLY Traditional, or “Dixieland”, style jazz. Live music is offered every evening, with sets lasting about 30 minutes each – but each person is required to buy one drink per set. If that doesn’t bother you, it’s a great place to hang out and hear the best jazz styles of the early 20th century played by the best trad artists of the early 21st century. Across the street from Fritzel’s, you will find the Bourbon O Bar which recently started offering live jazz every night of the week – making this particular section of Bourbon Street quite a destination point.
Another oasis on Bourbon is the Maison Bourbon “Dedicated to the Preservation of Jazz”. This club offers the flavor that Bourbon Street had earlier in the 20th Century. Once again, they demand the purchase of one drink per set – but these are the hardest working musicians in New Orleans. The doors are all usually left wide open, so these musicians have to compete with all the sounds of the street – and do a very good job of it. If you do visit, please sit and listen – pay attention and appreciate the artistry of these accomplished musicians . . . because most people walk by and gawk at them like zoo attractions, or have a quick drink to peruse the novelty of what they view as a musty old art form.
If you’d like to get off the street and sit in a cool, lush environment, you can pop into the Royal Sonesta Hotel which houses Irvin Mayfield’s Jazz Playhouse where the best jazz artists in the city play regularly for tourist that don’t usually know who they are. However, if you appreciate good music, you’ll want to hang around a few sets.
The last place on my list is rather iconic, it’s located just off of Bourbon Street on St. Peter – Preservation Hall – and it has been one of the hottest (both literally and figuratively) places to hear REAL New Orleans jazz for the past 50+ years. If you would like to learn a little about the history and music of this gem of American music, this is a link to the free podcast I hosted and produced on soulandjazz.com. It provides their origin story, history and an anthology of their recorded music.
If you would like to hear a mix of New Orleans music from trad to brass to funk – this is a link to another podcast I produced following Hurricane Katrina to remember, as well as celebrate the rebirth, renewal, and music of New Orleans.
New Orleans has been called the Festival Capital of the World because there seems to be a festival happening every other weekend . . . and each festival involves the essential element of music. The biggest and most famous festival is the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival or “jazz fest” which happens over ten days at the end of April / beginning of May each year. Those that don’t realize the full expanse of the Jazz Continuum may find the line-up of musicians and styles strange for a festival devoted to “jazz” – however, as stated earlier, the Heritage of New Orleans gave birth to pretty much every style of popular music played in the world today . . . so, all “genres” throughout the Continuum are deemed appropriate in this festival. I am saddened to say that I have never actually attended Jazz Fest, so I can only speculate as to its glory.
The other big festival for Local New Orleans music is the French Quarter Festival which takes place at the beginning of April each year. It started off fairly small but has grown into a huge festival filling every nook and cranny of the French Quarter. Once again, I have never been able to attend – but I know that this might be the best festival to immerse yourself in local bands & musicians and discover local talent.
My favorite festival and the only one that I can happily proclaim to have attended just about every year since it began is the Satchmo Summerfest – the first weekend of August each year, celebrating the life and music of Louis Armstrong. This festival features the best traditional jazz artists and experts in the world . . . including Yoshio Toyama, “The Satchmo of Japan”.
Other music festivals of note are the Louisiana Cajun-Zydeco Festival, The Congo Square New World Rhythms Festival, The Essence Festival, The Crescent City Blues and BBQ Festival, The Voodoo Music & Arts Experience, Christmas in New Orleans, and the ongoing festivities of Mardi Gras Season. If you want to visit New Orleans for a full musical experience rather than just hearing a few bands in a few clubs during your stay – I highly suggest one of these Festivals catering to your musical taste.
So . . . have I covered everything? Did I leave out your favorite band, venue, club, restaurant or festival? I would greatly appreciate and welcome any additional suggestions, comments or questions you may have. If you found this to be helpful, you might also wish to read one of the other entries in this NOLA-centric blog:
So, come on down and check out the city which gave birth to America’s music . . . where people still dance in the streets . . . where there is live music happening around every corner . . . where children grow up playing musical instruments like other kids play with toy trucks . . . and where you will find a musical culture second to none other in the world – the cultural seat of America. You’ll be glad you came!
Oh, and tell them the Jazz Evangelist sent you! 🙂
“Laissez Le Bon Temps Roulet”
J. Scott Fugate, “The Jazz Evangelist” 2015