There’s no place in the world like New Orleans. It’s where the fresh water of the Mississippi meets the salt water of the Gulf of Mexico at one of the country’s largest ports. It’s where the Spanish, French, and British flags once flew. It’s where scores of immigrants landed on the first step of their American journey — and where many stayed. Everything in the city — from the food and the architecture to the celebrations and culture — is the result of a blend of influences, influences that have been marinating together for generations to produce a unique style.
This is especially true of the city’s music, particularly New Orleans’s own genre: jazz.
Fashioned from African rhythms and European chords, the innovative musical improvisation we call jazz was born in New Orleans more than a century ago. Many of its geniuses — Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, and Sidney Bechet, among others — were born and raised in the Crescent City and refined their jazz chops there.
New Orleans is understandably proud of its jazz heritage, and hearing this music live should be a part of every trip to the city. Here are some of the best places to grab a drink, catch a set, and marvel at the gorgeous complexity of this music.
Founded in 1961, this legendary venue in the French Quarter offers some of the best unadulterated jazz in New Orleans in a bare-bones but historic setting. The Preservation Hall Jazz Band performs here on the regular; it is well known for its appearances at Coachella and for its collaborations with performers like Elvis Costello, Foo Fighters, and The Black Keys. The Preservation Hall Foundation provides mentoring to younger musicians and helps to preserve New Orleans’s jazz tradition.
The venue is open nightly, with hour-long sets at 5 p.m., 6 p.m., 8 p.m., 9 p.m., and 10 p.m. It is a rite of passage in New Orleans to stand in line to enter this hallowed hall, so arrive 30 to 45 minutes before your preferred show and prepare to queue up for an experience that is absolutely worth the wait. General admission, standing-room tickets cost $15 to $20, and limited reserved seating starts at $35.
Fritzel’s European Jazz Pub
Another old-school jazz joint to check out is Fritzel’s European Jazz Pub on Bourbon Street. Like Preservation Hall, it’s been around since the early ’60s and occupies a historic building in the heart of the French Quarter. It’s an intimate — perhaps even snug — setting, with a variety of bands and performers playing every night. There’s a one-drink minimum, but no cover. If you want a seat, be sure to get there early. Also, be ready for the inevitable impromptu dance party that’s sure to break out!
Little Gem Saloon
Little Gem Saloon, located in the Central Business District, was completely renovated in 2012. Now the first floor serves as the main music venue, while the second-floor Ramp Room accommodates private parties. The Little Gem is the perfect place to grab a bite to eat: Its kitchen serves up delicious Creole fare for lunch, dinner, and Sunday brunch. There are plenty of cocktail offerings to wash down both the food and the great music. Word to the wise: Little Gem also has a killer happy hour. Table reservations are highly recommended, and concert tickets can be purchased separately.
For a bit of swank with your jazz, stop by the Davenport Lounge, located at the Ritz Carlton on Canal Street just off the Quarter. From Wednesday through Saturday, this upscale spot named for trumpet player and headliner Jeremy Davenport swings with the sounds of the standards. The cocktail list is both cultivated and refined. Shareable offerings include Cajun-inspired classics: Crawfish toast and grilled andouille are both on the menu.
Snug Harbor Jazz Bistro
Snug Harbor, a quick cab or Uber ride downriver from the Quarter, is nestled in the mostly residential and history-heavy Faubourg Marigny neighborhood. For more than 30 years, the Snug has cranked out jazz and New Orleans cuisine in a renovated storefront. Local, regional, and national acts perform here, and like at other jazz dinner clubs, tickets must be purchased separately from table reservations. Performances take place seven nights a week and feature lineups that read like a who’s who of jazz: Kermit Ruffins plays here regularly, as do Ellis Marsalis and Charmaine Neville.
Maple Leaf Bar
You’ll want to head to Uptown at least once during your New Orleans visit for the stately homes, great cafés, and famous Maple Leaf Bar. You just might brush shoulders with a celebrity at the Leaf; Bruce Springsteen once surprised the crowd by sitting in on a set, and Bonnie Raitt did the same. It’s not at all uncommon to see the crowd spilling into the street during a set; that’s why the Leaf offers live streams of its nightly performances on its website. It’s such a hotspot that the Uptown Mardi Gras krewe begins and ends its annual parade there. The bar has been mentioned by many authors and poets in their work — it is truly a New Orleans institution. Visit yourself to see — and hear — why.
Another tried-and-true Uptown venue where you can experience live jazz is Tipitina’s (or Tip’s, as the locals call it). It opened its doors on Napoleon Street in 1977 as a place for the famed pianist Professor Longhair to perform in his last years. The club is named for his song “Tipitina,” and it has hosted some of the most iconic names in jazz during the past four decades, including Dr. John and the Neville Brothers. National artists spanning genres — including Pearl Jam, Bonnie Raitt, James Brown, and Willie Nelson — have also played at Tip’s.
Tipitina’s is home to a foundation dedicated to supporting local musicians; its main goal is to provide instruments and uniforms to New Orleans’s many talented high school marching bands.
Fun fact: When it first opened, Tipitina’s featured a juice bar. The juice bar is long gone, but the banana in the club’s logo is a permanent reminder that it once existed.
Commander’s Palace Jazz Brunch
The weekend jazz brunch is a New Orleans tradition, and there’s no better place to experience it than at the legendary Commander’s Palace. Internationally known and lauded for its gourmet, elevated takes on Creole and Cajun classics (the restaurant consistently wins James Beard awards), Commander’s is located in Uptown a short streetcar ride away from the bustle of the Quarter. The restaurant has been around since 1893, and it is still the place to see and be seen in New Orleans. Famous for its turtle soup and Creole bread pudding soufflé, plus its amazing wine list and crafted cocktails, Commander’s weekend brunch also features live performances by a jazz trio. Reservations are required, and there is a dress code: This isn’t a place to casually check out a set. But for a true, upscale experience of the city and the music that first took root there, it doesn’t get better than Commander’s.
Want to listen to some of the best names in jazz, rock, and funk with tens of thousands of other music aficionados? Plan your visit around the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, which takes place annually during the last weekend of April and the first weekend of May. Jazz Fest began 50 years ago, and today it is held at the New Orleans Fair Grounds Race Course. Performers at the festival have included Eric Clapton, Santana, Stevie Wonder, Jimmy Buffett, Bob Dylan, and the late Aretha Franklin.
The Fair Grounds is a huge space, and it is a bit far from the Quarter and Uptown, but all that land is necessary to fit the dozen stages featuring jazz, blues, zydeco, and gospel music. Then there are all of the handicraft booths, food tents, and bars to check out. Bring a blanket and sunscreen, grab a hunk of crawfish bread from one of the vendors, wash it down with an Abita, and laissez les bons temps rouler!
On The Street
There’s a place where you can hear some of the city’s best jazz without a cover charge, drink minimum, or ticket. From youngsters working to refine their chops to old jazz cats whose histories are steeped in this music, jazz performers abound in New Orleans’s streets. Stroll through the Quarter at nearly any time of day, and you’ll hear street musicians or bands busking on a corner. Sometimes you’ll catch them near the Saint Louis Cathedral or performing in the Royal Street pedestrian mall. No matter where you hear them, know that you’re taking in jazz in its original form. This ubiquitous music was born on the streets of New Orleans, and the street is still one of the best places to catch it today. Stop, listen for a while, and enjoy the rich jazz tradition that has been passed down for generations. You won’t regret it.