Jazz was born in New Orleans, with roots that reach back to Congo Square, where enslaved Africans in the colonial era were allowed to congregate on Sundays to dance and share songs. It began to take form as we know it in the parlors of Storyville, on the streets where brass bands marched and second lines formed, and in legendary dance halls like the Funky Butt, where Buddy Bolden enraptured dancers with his swinging blues.
Jazz in the city of New Orleans really reached its heyday in the hot jazz era, before the Great Migration and Harlem Renaissance created new hubs of jazz in Chicago, New York, and elsewhere, with many of the city's finest musicians (Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton, for two) leaving for greener pastures. New Orleans, always at the musical vanguard, eventually became an R&B/early rock town, and then a funk town, and later a hip-hop town, with jazz existing largely on the fringes as the years went on.
But the old traditions certainly never died out. There are brilliant artists keeping the musical spirit of Sidney Bechet and King Oliver alive, and plenty of others who push the boundaries of jazz in the most contemporary ways. Want to see for yourself? Make the rounds of some of these incredible venues and have a listen, and see the Jazz & Heritage Festival in April and May.
If traditional New Orleans jazz is what you seek, you can’t do any better than Preservation Hall. This legendary French Quarter establishment has been hosting the city’s finest traditional musicians nightly for decades. Reserve tickets in advance for one of the three intimate and highly interactive nightly shows (45 minutes each, starting at 8, 9, and 10 pm) or take your chances waiting in line the night of the show. As Pres Hall is an alcohol-free establishment, it’s a particularly good entertainment choice for visitors with kids in tow.
726 St. Peters St. (French Quarter) / (504) 522-2841
There aren’t a lot of reasons for culture vultures to head to the trad jazz lowbrow Bourbon Street, but Fritzel’s is certainly worth the stop. Traditional jazz, played mostly by the house band (Fritzel’s New Orleans Jazz Band) with various special guests, is what you’ll find. The barroom is friendly and boisterous but without the frat bro-ish vibe of many of its Bourbon Street neighbors.
733 Bourbon St. (French Quarter) / (504) 586-4800
This upscale cocktail and lounge bar is nestled in the swanky Royal Sonesta Hotel. Its namesake performer, Grammy-winning trumpeter Irvin Mayfield, plays here regularly, and when he’s not in town, everyone from the trad jazz pioneers the Tuxedo Hall Jazz Band to contemporary crooners and even burlesque troupes takes the stage. Most shows are free, though there’s an occasional cover for a well-known act.
300 Bourbon St. (French Quarter) / (504) 553-2299
Jeremy Davenport himself headlines Wednesday through Saturday nights at this Ritz-Carlton lounge, satisfying listeners with a combination of his own compositions and favorite old jazz standards. It’s a luxurious place to sip cocktails and nosh on small plates (Wednesday night has a particularly nice and low-priced happy hour bites menu from 5-9 pm) while listening to one of the greatest trumpeters in town.
921 Canal St. (French Quarter) / (504) 524-1331
Palm Court has tucked away on the less-trafficked downriver end of Decatur Street, and as such, serves a more low-key in-the-know crowd than many overrun tourist spots. It’s a mellow sort of space where traditional jazz (especially piano jazz) is generally the focal point and patrons quietly enjoy Creole food and classic cocktails while the band plays.
1204 Decatur St. (French Quarter) / (504) 525-0200
Snug Harbor is a Frenchmen Street stalwart whose musical calendar is overflowing with the very finest local jazz (and jazz-esque) talent: Ellis Marsalis, Allen Toussaint, Charmaine Neville, Delfeayo Marsalis, Tom McDermott, and many other well-known names appear on the schedule regularly. A nice drinks menu and good food round out the excellent experience.
626 Frenchmen St. (Marigny) / (504) 949-0696
Just a block down Frenchmen from Snug Harbor, The Maison serves up traditional jazz alongside its dinner menu from 4-10 pm every day (it starts at 1 pm on Saturdays). After 10, the music shifts to brass bands, funk, rock, and occasionally national touring acts. The food is good but the music is great, so be prepared to eat slowly and enjoy.
508 Frenchmen St. (Marigny) / (504) 371-5543
Stevie Wonder chose this cozy, down-home restaurant and jazz club for a secret show after JazzFest 2015, a choice which didn’t particularly surprise in-the-know locals. On regular nights, the jazz here is on the contemporary side with an edge of cool, for the most part, and the clientele is largely local. Hungry? Good. The menu of old-school New Orleans Creole fare is excellent and far more affordable here than anywhere more tourist-trodden, and the staff is friendly as all get-out.
1931 St. Claude Ave. (Marigny) / (504) 945-9654 / facebook.com/sweetlorrainesjazzclub
Sitting in the back courtyard at Bacchanal feels quite a lot like being invited to a friend’s private party if your friends had live jazz bands in their backyards and an extensive wine list and delightful small plates. The atmosphere is convivial and neighborhood-y, and the location on the far downriver end of the Bywater neighborhood means that tourists are few and far between. The jazz on hand is mostly hot jazz, string jazz, and bebop or hard bop, so heads up, hard-core jazz aficionados.
600 Poland Ave. (Bywater) / (504) 948-9111
There’s never a cover at this friendly, pleasantly divey Uptown cigar bar, which offers perhaps the most diverse jazz calendar of any venue on this list: hot jazz, Dixieland, bebop, modern jazz, Gypsy jazz, brass bands… they’ve got it all. True to the name, Dos Jefes really is a cigar bar, earning it an exemption to New Orleans’ new smoke-free rules, so if smoke yucks you out, this might not be the choice for you (there’s a nice outdoor patio with swings, but if you’re here for the music, you’ll want to be inside). The bar has a wide selection of liquors and beers, and when a band’s playing, one of the city’s finer food trucks is almost always parked outside for notables.
5535 Tchoupitoulas St. (Uptown) / (504) 891-8500