Ain't No Place Like New Orleans
If you thought I’d start this post out with a classic New Orleans Jazz song, you are sadly mistaken. Jazz was born and raised in NOLA. It’s THE place to see live jazz, with acts like The Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Kermit Ruffins, and a slew of other notable jazz acts performing any given night on Frenchmen St. But The NOLA music scene is so much more than just jazz. Just like Big Freedia says in her newest release 3rd Ward Bounce, “Ain’t No Place Like New Orleans”. No place like NOLA for food, for drinks, for culture, and definitely no place like NOLA for music.
Music is more than an art form in New Orleans. It’s a part of everyday culture and life. Kids aren’t sent off begrudgingly to music lessons, instead they seek out becoming musicians. They are raised up respecting music culture and their musical “elders”. Additionally, it’s a solid paying job in a city that relies heavily on tourism and has a poverty rate of 26%. There are several musical enrichment programs across the city like The Roots of Music, which provides music instruction and history to kids ages 9-14 from low income families for free. Their “program delivers over 2,500 hours of music education and other academic tutoring, over 30,400 nutritious hot meals, 1,400 bus journeys, and supplies over 150 instruments for student use.” That’s serious dedication to New Orleans music culture.
In the 18th Century the Slave Trade brought 400,000 slaves to North America from West Africa and the Congo. During French and Spanish rule in New Orleans, slaves were allowed Sundays off. Many gathered in Congo Square, which arguable is known as the Birthplace of Jazz, to play music. Jazz is considered by many to be America’s indigenous music. With genres such as Classic Jazz, Gypsy Jazz, Swing, Ragtime, and Smooth Jazz the sound of Jazz emerging from NOLA was, and continues to be, extremely diverse. New Orleans has given the world Jazz greats like Louis Armstrong, Buddy Bolden, Jelly Roll Morton, “King” Oliver, “Kid” Ory, Ellis Marsalis and his son Wynton Marsalis, and Harold Battiste just to name a few.
Prior even to the emergence of what is now considered New Orleans Jazz the city had a long history of second line and brass bands. These bands continue to play at pretty much every event you can imagine. Funerals, parades, carnivals, weddings, and picnics are all likely places to find a Second Line. Starting with Excelsior, Onward, and Olympia brass bands in the late 19th century, we now find bands like Rebirth Brass Band, Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Soul Rebels, and Hot 8 Brass Band. You can hear brass bands all across the city on any given day.
Beyond jazz and the second line, New Orleans was integral to the early R&B and Rock & Roll scene with artists like Fats Domino, Irma Thomas, Little Richard, and Allen Toussaint. In fact, New Orleans music Legend Fats Domino was so integral to the creation of Rock that he has been credited with influencing Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, the Everly Brothers, Elvis and even The Beatles.
And it’s not just the classic stuff of New Orleans that has influenced music. With labels like No Limit Records headed by Master P signing New Orleans rappers like Mystikal and Soulja Slim and Cash Money Records headlined by Juvenile and Lil Wayne, NOLA is a stand out in the early Hip Hop and Rap scene. Big Freedia, the Queen of Bounce who has been featured on songs by Beyonce and Drake, has been releasing albums and gaining fame for nearly a decade. The city even has a solid metal scene which has been growing since the 1980s. Don’t believe me that Heavy Metal has also given rise from the garages and underground clubs of NOLA? Just ask Phil Anselmo, lead singer of Pantera, who was born and raised in New Orleans and even attended High School with Harry Connick Jr.
With the vast diversity of music in New Orleans it’s no wonder we have seen some amazing artists and shows over the years. On our first trip to the city in January of 2014 we really had no great plan of who to see or where to go for music. We knew NOLA had music, and plenty of people offered up suggestions, one of them being to head over to Frenchmen Street. So we wondered over to Frenchmen as wide eyed tourists astounded by the boundless music streaming out from the doorway of every bar, and a brass band creating an impromptu dance party in the middle of the street. We stumbled into The Spotted Cat. The Shotgun Jazz Band was playing. There were swing dancers tossing each other across the tiny cement dance floor. We ordered a few Abita beers from the bar (2 drink minimum, please) and stayed well into the night. We were hooked.
The “Cat” became a regular spot of ours over the years where we have seen shows by Meschiya Lake and The Little Big Horns, Russell Welch Hot Quartet, Jumbo Shrimp, Antoine Diel, Panorama Jazz Band, and The Jazz Vipers amongst others. There was even this incident with Lindsay borrowing guitar player Chris Christy’s skateboard one night, but we won’t go into details with that…
As our love for New Orleans grew, so did our desire to see different kinds of music in different kinds of venues. The first time we ventured to Bullet’s Sports Bar to see Kermit Ruffin’s play his regularly scheduled Tuesday night shows we received the requisite advice of the cabbie that dropped us off to “be safe, don’t hang around outside, it’s not real safe here.” We headed inside, grabbed some beers at the bar and a plate of BBQ from the truck in the back, and spent the night ignoring most of the cabbies advice while we hung out listening to Kermit.
You may find, as you venture out of the French Quarter to explore the city, that you will often hear that kind of advice. Well meaning people will remind you that it’s “unsafe”. The reality is that NOLA is a city, and it comes with the same risks as any other city. Don’t be a drunken tourist singing “Little Liza Jane” down a residential street. Respect people’s neighborhoods. Many small music venues are also neighborhood bars. They aren’t made to be tourist traps. Respect the locals. They were there first.
One show we always try to catch while we are in NOLA is one of the 5 nightly shows at Preservation Hall. Since 1961 Preservation Hall has been dedicated to preserving the art of Traditional New Orleans Jazz. There’s no bar inside, but you can bring your own drinks (no glass, please). General Admission is $20, cash only, and you want to get in line at least 30 minutes in advance. There’s limited seating. We generally opt to sit on the floor up front to get the best view of the band comprised of member from a collective of over 100 New Orleans jazz musicians. If you want to see traditional jazz, this is the place.
There are over 80 music venues in New Orleans. There’s well known places like Tipitina’s where Professor Longhair played, The Saenger Theater which has been around since 1927, and The House of Blues. Smaller venues like Maple Leaf Bar which hosts Rebirth Brass band (get there very early for that one!), Little Gem Saloon, The Howlin’ Wolf, and Le Bon Temps Roule. There’s out of the way places like Gasa Gasa for local bands and alternative music acts, Chickie Wah Wah which has free live music during it’s happy hour M-F 5:30-7:30, Vaughn’s in the Bywater, Bacchanal Wine where you can listen to bands outside, and Siberia which hosts rock and metals acts. There’s a slew of clubs up and down Frenchmen Street including The Maison, 30/90, d.b.a., and Snug Harbor all of which have music any given night of the week. You can even catch a show in an art museum every Thursday night at The Ogden Museum of Southern Art.
And the bands are endless. We’ve seen shows from bands like The Palmetto Bug Stompers, The Roamin’ Jasmine, Tank and the Bangas, The Catahoulas, Miss Sophie Lee, and Dana Abbott Band and almost every other current band mentioned in this post (we STILL haven't seen Big Freedia!). Plus you’ll see buskers and street bands all around. The music is endless in NOLA!
If you are headed into the city and want to see who is playing where, check out the Livewire Music Calendar on WWOZ for a comprehensive list of artists playing around the city. Remember, some clubs have a cover and some don’t. Lots of places are cash only. If there’s a drink minimum, respect it. And always, always, tip the band!
I have to admit, I’m a bit sad as I close out this last post on New Orleans. It truly is a magical city. But we will be back, and that means more photos and more stories! Until then friends, Adventure On!