In a city where slavery, racism and brothels helped give rise to jazz and incubated other genres, it can be a bit overwhelming trying to get the full story of New Orleans’ musical history. The city’s winding, thorny past has tendrils that connect its musical heritage to West Africa, Paris, Sicily and Chicago.
Luckily there are a variety of lenses through which to view the city’s 300 years of music history. They’re found in the numerous guided music walking tours offered around town, which I recently sampled a variety of.
French Quarter Phantoms’ “Music of New Orleans Tour” starts on North Rampart Street, just across from Armstrong Park. My guide was Stella Salmen, a local musician who took us through the park where we discussed Congo Square and music pioneers.
Dipping into Tremé, the nation’s oldest African-American neighborhood, we passed the home of drummer Shannon “King of Tremé” Powell, and learned about Ernie “Emperor of the Universe” K-Doe’s hit single “Mother-in-Law” (written by the prolific Allen Toussaint) and his music club of the same name (now owned by trumpeter Kermit Ruffins). Salmen discussed Mardi Gras Indians and second-line traditions, before moving on to the soon-to-reopen New Orleans African American Museum, historic St. Augustine Church and the Backstreet Cultural Museum.
The tour ended back at Armstrong Park, across from the legendary J&M Studio, where everyone from Ray Charles and Fats Domino to Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard recorded. It’s now a laundromat with a little exhibit in the back by the dryers.
New Orleans Music Tours’ “Music Gumbo” excursion kicked off in the French Quarter and ended at Armstrong Park. It also included a stop at the Basin Street Visitor Center, where the infamous Storyville red-light district (where many jazz greats, including Satchmo, performed) stood in the early 1900s.
Guide Jeremy Habeggar went into detail regarding the local tradition of plaçage, which were common law marriages between European men and free women of color. Sons born from such unions would often be classically trained overseas then return home to become part of the fabric of the developing local music scene. Habeggar also talked about of the musical contributions of Sicilian immigrants and their descendants, such as “King of Swing” Louis Prima, Cosimo Matassa (of J&M fame) and Nick Larocca, leader of the Original Dixieland Jass Band.
Discussing the origins of jazz, birthed in the brothels of Storyville, can be tricky business when traveling with kids. French Quartour Kids’ music tour two-steps around some of the more unsavory aspects of New Orleans music (and regular) history. Run by two retired teachers, the tours delve into the city’s sounds in a family friendly manner.
“We’re going to be hauling ass across time, space and genre,” said guide Keith Abel of Abel Tours. “In New Orleans, jazz is both a culture and a 100-year overnight success.”
A born storyteller, Abel started his “Music & Heritage Tour” by recounting the story of the city’s founding while standing outside of the Louisiana Music Factory. Sharing the larger-than-life tales of local legends like early composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk, rhythm guitarist Danny Barker, clarinetist Pete Fountain and pianist Roy Byrd (aka Professor Longhair), Abel guided us through Jackson Square, past Preservation Hall and onto Bourbon Street. He even offered recommendations on what acts to catch and clubs to hit later on.
“Three hundred years of music history in New Orleans is like an onion,” added Abel. “The more you peel back, the sweeter it is...but the more you cry.”
Roam Alone: Self-Guided Jazz Jaunts
While a professional tour guide is a valuable resource for learning about a city, sometimes you just want to go at your own pace. These days free, self-guided tours are easier than ever to access with a smartphone.
The National Park Service’s New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park tour route and stop info can be found here. In addition to spots in and around the French Quarter, the tour includes the Jazz Walk of Fame along the Algiers Point levee, just off the ferry landing. Cross the Mississippi River from the French Quarter and check it out, while enjoying killer views of the city.
The Algiers Historical Society offers two self-guided walking tours that really delve into the local jazz scene. “Over Da River” and “Brooklyn of the South” both highlight a number of obscure spots in the city’s second-oldest neighborhood with step-by-step text and in-depth information about each of the 20-plus stops along the way.
The New Orleans Historical Project’s The Birthplace of Jazz: A Walking Tour Through New Orleans’ Musical Past features an interactive map highlighting 10 historically significant spots throughout the French Quarter and the Central Business District, including the Eagle Saloon, the Lyric Theater and the Tango Belt. In addition to detailed background info on each stop are clips of thematically appropriate music.