Where to Listen to Good Jazz Music in New Orleans
There’s no place in the world like New Orleans. This is where the fresh water of the Mississippi meets the salt water of the Gulf of Mexico at one of the nation’s largest ports. This is where the Spanish, French and British flags once flew. It’s where dozens of immigrants landed on the first leg of their journey to the United States — and where many stayed. Everything about the city – from the food and architecture to the celebrations and culture – is the result of a mix of influences, influences that have come together for generations to produce a unique style.
This is especially true of the city’s music, especially the genre unique to New Orleans: jazz.
Shaped from African rhythms and European chords, the innovative musical improvisation we call jazz originated in New Orleans over a century ago. Many of its geniuses – Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton and Sidney Bechet, among others – were born and raised in Crescent City and honed their jazz chops there.
New Orleans is understandably proud of its jazz heritage, and listening to this live music should be part of every trip to the city. Here are some of the best places to grab a drink, catch a concert, and marvel at the magnificent intricacy of this music.
Founded in 1961, this legendary French Quarter venue offers some of New Orleans’ best pure jazz in a stripped-down yet historic setting. The Preservation Hall Jazz Band performs here regularly; he is well known for his appearances at Coachella and for his collaborations with artists like Elvis Costello, Foo Fighters and The Black Keys. The Preservation Hall Foundation provides mentorship to young musicians and helps preserve the New Orleans jazz tradition.
The venue is open every night, with one-hour sets at 5 p.m., 6 p.m., 8 p.m., 9 p.m., and 10 p.m. It’s a New Orleans rite of passage to wait in line to enter this hallowed hall, so arrive 30-45 minutes before your favorite show and be prepared to wait in line for an experience well worth the wait. ‘wait. General admission, standing room tickets are $15-$20 and limited reserved seating starts at $35.
Fritzel European Jazz Pub
Fritzel’s European Jazz Pub on Bourbon Street is another old-school jazz establishment to check out. Like Preservation Hall, it has been around since the early 1960s and occupies a historic building in the heart of the French Quarter. It’s an intimate, even cozy setting, with a variety of bands and artists playing every night. There is a minimum of one drink, but no cover. If you want a seat, be sure to arrive early. Also be prepared for the inevitable impromptu dance party that is sure to break out!
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The Little Gem Saloon, located in the central business district, was completely renovated in 2012. Now the first floor serves as the main concert hall, while the second floor Ramp Room hosts private parties. Little Gem is the perfect place to grab a bite to eat: its kitchen serves delicious Creole dishes for lunch, dinner and Sunday brunch. There are plenty of cocktail offerings to wash down both the food and the great music. Advice 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 chic with your jazz, stop by the Davenport Lounge, located at the Ritz Carlton on Canal Street, just off the block. From Wednesday to Saturday, this upscale spot named in honor of trumpeter and headliner Jeremy Davenport vibrates to the sound of standards. The cocktail menu is both cultured and refined. Offerings to share include Cajun-inspired classics: crawfish toast and grilled andouille sausage are both on the menu.
Snug Harbor Jazz Bistro
Snug Harbour, a quick taxi or Uber ride downriver from the neighborhood, is tucked away in the mostly residential and history-laden neighborhood of Faubourg Marigny. For more than 30 years, Snug has been offering jazz and New Orleans cuisine in a renovated storefront. Local, regional, and national artists perform here, and like 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 visit to New Orleans for the stately mansions, great coffee shops and the famous Maple Leaf Bar. You might rub shoulders with a celebrity at the Leaf; Bruce Springsteen once surprised the crowd by sitting on a set, and Bonnie Raitt did the same. It’s not at all uncommon to see the crowd pour out 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 hot spot that the Uptown Mardi Gras coterie starts 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 to see – and hear – why.
Tipitina’s (or Tip’s as the locals call it) is another tried-and-true downtown venue where you can experience live jazz. It opened its doors on rue Napoléon in 1977 to allow the famous pianist Professor Longhair to perform during his last years. The club is named after his song “Tipitina” and has hosted some of the most iconic names in jazz over the past four decades, including Dr. John and the Neville Brothers. National artists spanning all genres – including Pearl Jam, Bonnie Raitt, James Brown and Willie Nelson – have also performed at Tip’s.
Tipitina’s is home to a foundation dedicated to supporting local musicians; its main purpose is to supply instruments and uniforms to the many talented New Orleans high school marching bands.
Fun fact: when it opened, the Tipitina had a juice bar. The juice bar is long gone, but the banana in the club’s logo is a permanent reminder of its existence.
Commander’s Palace Jazz Brunch
Weekend jazz brunch is a New Orleans tradition, and there’s no better place to experience it than at the legendary Commander’s Palace. Known and acclaimed around the world for its gourmet and refined versions of Creole and Cajun classics (the restaurant regularly wins James Beard awards), Commander’s is located in the city center, a short streetcar ride from the hustle and bustle of the neighborhood . The restaurant has existed 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, as well as its incredible wine list and craft cocktails, Commander’s weekend brunch also features live performances by a jazz trio. Reservations are required and there is a dress code: this is not a place to casually check out an ensemble. But for a true high-end experience of the city and the music that has taken root there, it doesn’t get any better than Commander.
Want to listen to some of the best names in jazz, rock and funk along with tens of thousands of other music lovers? Plan your visit around the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, which takes place the last weekend of April and the first weekend of May each year. Jazz Fest began 50 years ago and is held today at the New Orleans Fair Grounds Race Course. Festival performers 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’s a bit far from the Quarter and Uptown, but all that ground is needed to accommodate the dozen or so stages featuring jazz, blues, zydeco and gospel music. Then there are all the craft stalls, food tents and bars to discover. Bring a blanket and sunscreen, grab a piece of crawfish bread from one of the vendors, wash it with an Abita and let the good times roll!
In the street
There’s a place where you can listen to some of the best jazz in town with no entrance fee, minimum drink or ticket. From young people working to refine their chops to old jazz cats whose stories are steeped in this music, jazz performers abound on the streets of New Orleans. Walk around the neighborhood at almost any time of day and you’ll hear street musicians or street bands on a corner. Sometimes you’ll spot them near St. Louis Cathedral or playing on the pedestrianized Royal Street. No matter where you hear them, know that you are listening to 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 moment and enjoy the rich jazz tradition passed down from generation to generation. You will not regret it.
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