New Orleans R&B legend Ernie K-Doe was once quoted as saying, “I’m not sure, but I think all music came from New Orleans.” What might be a more accurate account—and relatively hyperbole-free—is that all music came to New Orleans. Any style you can name, from African field hollers to industrial techno-rock to classical, finds its way to the Crescent City. Paul McCartney, Led Zeppelin, Trent Reznor, and Beyoncé have recorded here. Pianist James Booker, an eye-patched eccentric even by New Orleans standards, could make a Bach chorale strut like a second-line umbrella twirler. Then it’s blended, shaken, and stirred into a new, distinctive, and frothy concoction that could have come from nowhere else.
That sublime hybrid is what you’ll likely find: jazz descended from Buddy Bolden, Louis Armstrong, and their Storyville compatriots. Head-bobbing R&B transmitted via Fats Domino and Professor Longhair. Hip hop incorporating rhythmic Mardi Gras Indian chants. Brass bands of the second lines, infused with funk exuberance. Soak it in.
The Jazz Life of New Orleans With Thanks to Jazz Historian George Hocutt
Music was of great importance to the Louisiana settlers and their Creole offspring, and early on the city had a fascination with marching bands (records of parades go back to 1787). Bands became required for occasions from baptisms to funerals ad infinitum—as they still are today.
In the early 19th century, enslaved peoples were allowed to congregate in the area known as Congo Square (now part of Armstrong Park) for dancing and drumming to the rhythms of their African and Caribbean homelands. Eventually these enslaved people and free people of color became accomplished instrumentalists. When blues, work songs, hollers, and spirituals were melded with their native-based rhythms and syncopations, the precursor to jazz was forming. The music was taking on a distinctly New Orleanian aura.
By the late 1890s, cornetist Charles “Buddy” Bolden, the “First Man of Jazz,” and drummer “Papa” Jack Laine were taking the sounds to the next level, and to white audiences—helped along by black vaudeville crossing the color line. (In a part of the Central Business District once called “Backatown,” their original haunts still stand—barely—awaiting pending renovation. We hope. Check out the Eagle Saloon at 401-403 S. Rampart St., and the neighboring Iroquois Theatre, where an adolescent Louis Armstrong first played, at 413-415 S. Rampart St.).
Meanwhile, the Storyville brothel zone was flourishing on nearby Basin Street. The entertainment lineup at the better houses included a piano player in the parlor—the immortal Jelly Roll Morton among them.
By the twenties, sleazy Storyville was folding. Its players took the new sounds on the road: Kid Ory to California; King Oliver and his protégé Louis Armstrong to Chicago; Papa Jack and his Original Dixieland Jazz Band to New York. Their shows drew hordes and their records sold wildly. After World War II, Sidney Bechet and horn set up shop in France, and jazz consumed the continent. The jazz genie was officially out of the bottle and the craze was on.
New Orleans is still producing jazz greats and pushing the form forward. Start with Ellis Marsalis, father to jazz-playing sons Branford, Jason, and Pulitzer Prize–winning trumpeter Wynton. Jon Batiste. Christian Scott, aTunde Adjuah, Terence Blanchard, and brothers Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews and James “Satchmo of the Ghetto” Andrews (among others) blow their horns to ever-adventurous distances. Obviously, the city still abounds with creativity.
Meanwhile, the nouveau traditional jazz movement is mad hot. On any given night in any given club, players from their 20s to their 70s share the bandstand, covering Jelly Roll or Django—or playing originals straight outta their eras. The Jazz Vipers, Moonshiners, Cottonmouth Kings, Smokin’ Time Jazz Band, Palmetto Bug Stompers, Tuba Skinny, Little Big Horns, and Hot Club of New Orleans start the long list.
Today, there’s way more to New Orleans brass bands than the post-funeral “second line” parade of “When the Saints Go Marching In.” Now, brass is imbued with funk, R&B, reggae, and hip hop. Further, brass-band appearances on the HBO TV show Tremé engendered a new crop of fans. Classics like the Tremé and Olympia Brass Bands still hold court, but the revival goes back to the late 1980s, when Dirty Dozen Brass Band and Rebirth Brass Band started mixing things up. Today this horn-heavy, booty-moving, New Orleans–born and -bred style packs the clubs and the streets. Try to catch the sounds of Louis Armstrong look- and sound-alike (and reigning king) Kermit Ruffins and his Barbecue Swingers; Hot 8; New Birth; or the Stooges. Or newer arrivals like the blazing TBC (To Be Continued) Brass Band, eclectic Soul Brass, raging Brass-a-Holics, or the pumping street-corner Gods, Young Fellaz. Did we mention the ladies-only Pinettes? Yeah, see them.
Cajun & Zydeco
Cajun and zydeco don’t come from New Orleans at all despite the soundtrack you hear blaring out of Bourbon Street T-shirt shops. Both genres originated in the bayous of southwest Louisiana, a good 3 hours away. Their foundations lie in the arrival of two different French-speaking peoples in the swamp country: the white Acadians (French migrants who were booted out of Nova Scotia by the English in 1755) and the black Creoles (who came from the Caribbean slave trade). Both oppressed groups took to the folksy button accordion, newly introduced from Germany and France, which added a richness and power to their fiddle and guitar music. Later, drums, amplifiers, and steel guitars filled out the sound.
The styles began to separate after WWII, with the Cajuns gravitating toward country-and-western swing and Creole musicians being heavily influenced by the urban blues. D. L. Menard (the Cajun Hank Williams) and Clifton Chenier (the King of Zydeco) pioneered exciting new strains in their respective directions. During the early 1960s folk-music boom, such figures as the Balfa Brothers and fiddler Dennis McGee performed at folk festivals. A turning point came when a Cajun group received a standing ovation at the 1964 Newport Festival, energizing the form and Cajun pride, and spawning a new generation of Cajun musicians.
The proud new generation was led by accordion guru Marc Savoy and his multi-instrumentalist/author wife Ann, and fiddler Michael Doucet and his band Beausoleil—with Steve Riley and Zachary Richard in quick-step. The next generation of ambassadors, like the pioneering Red Stick Ramblers, the Grammy-winning Pine Leaf Boys, Feaufollet, and intoxicating hybridists Lost Bayou Ramblers are mixing in new styles while venerating old-timey music. (The Ramblers regularly cover the Pogues, scrambling Irish punk with Cajun French in a madcap, Mensa-level mash-up).
As for zydeco, the late Boozoo Chavis, John Delafose, and Rockin’ Sidney joined king Clifton Chenier and added their own embellishments. More recently, Nathan Williams and the late, great, stately Beau Jocque did the same. The form is thriving today thanks to some of their musical progeny, including Chenier’s son C. J., Delafose’s son Geno, and various Dopsie kin (Dwayne and Rockin’ Dopsie, Jr.), and girl powerhouses like “Zydeco Sweetheart” Rosie Ledet and Amanda Shaw. Terrance Simien won the first zydeco Grammy in 2008, and the latest crop of players, like Corey Ledet and Jeffrey Broussard, are blending in the influences du jour. Also see “Cajun Country”.
Rhythm & Blues (& Hip Hop & Bounce, Oh My)
The Delta isn’t far, and the blues’ gospel and African-Caribbean bloodlines took deep root in the Crescent City. In the 1950s, Fats Domino and his great producer-collaborator Dave Bartholomew fused those elements into the seminal hits “Blueberry Hill” and “Walkin’ to New Orleans.” Simultaneously, the unheralded Professor Longhair and “Champion” Jack Dupree were developing trailblazing piano sounds, contrasting mournful woe with party-time spirit. More piano genii followed, from James Booker to Dr. John. Crooners Johnny Adams and “Soul Queen” Irma Thomas kept it smooth (she still does—don't miss her if you get the chance).
The long-time keepers of the flame, the Neville Brothers, retired (R.I.P. saxophonist Charles, who died in 2018), but their funky offshoot the Meters are going strong in various guises. The genre has broadly evolved into funk, jam, and hip hop—with L'il Wayne and Juvenile and the beleaguered Cash Money label driving that end, not to mention the only-in-New-Orleans, proto-twerking “bounce” trend led by gender-tweaking post-rapper Big Freedia. And we gotta include funksters Galactic and Dumpstaphunk and breakout superstar Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews.
The bluesy end of the spectrum is well represented by late greats like Snooks Eaglin and Earl King, and current keepers of the acclaim, axe men Tab Benoit, Anders Osborne, and Sonny Landreth, pianist Jon Cleary, and harpist nonpareil Johnny Sansone, to name a few.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.