History of Jazz Music: Birthplace New Orleans

New Orleans is the birthplace of jazz. Learn about the rich history of the area's famous jazz musicians and their continuing influence on jazz in New Orleans and the rest of the world.

Preservation Hall Jazz Band in New Orleans

Listen to legends at Preservation Hall.

Louisiana State Museum - Jazz Museum

Dive deep into the history of jazz at the New Orleans Jazz Museum.

When people visit New Orleans, they'll inevitably hear music at clubs like Preservation Hall, Snug Harbor and the Palm Court, or they'll experience it being played outdoors in historic Jackson Square or swingin' down a street during a second line parade. Often, they'll exclaim, "Oh, this is jazz? I didn't think I liked jazz, but I like this." That change of heart results from audiences experiencing jazz played by New Orleans musicians and happily sharing their love of the music and its heritage.

History of Jazz Music

New Orleans is the birthplace of jazz. That used to be debated by folks arguing in favor of hubs of the genre such as New York and Chicago. The discussion quieted after the publication of In Search of Buddy Bolden: First Man of Jazz. Historian Don Marquis' book documents the life of the New Orleans native trumpeter (1877-1931) and also offers glimpses of the times and his remarkable sound. .

Jelly Roll Morton (1890-1941) would undoubtedly have disputed the book's title, as the New Orleans pianist often proclaimed he invented jazz. Morton, known almost as much for his arrogant demeanor as his impressive body of work, was pivotal in jazz's creation, particularly as a composer and arranger. While Bolden gained his reputation in the Crescent City, Morton rose from playing ragtime piano in brothels in New Orleans' Storyville District (shut down in 1917 and demolished in the 1930s) to achieving international fame.

Many jazz artists, including luminary figures such as cornetist Joe "King" Oliver (1885-1938), took the music north in search of more lucrative environs. New Orleans' most famous musician, the renowned trumpeter and vocalist Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong, took it a step further and made jazz famous worldwide. Though the charismatic Armstrong (1901-1971) moved away from his hometown in 1922, he remains beloved. New Orleans' municipal airport has been dedicated to him, and a bronze statue of the trumpeter reigns over a park named in his honor. Armstrong Park, located in the Treme neighborhood, is the site of numerous festivals and is home to the Mahalia Jackson Theater. This performance venue pays tribute to the New Orleans gospel legend. Within Armstrong Park's gates is an area called Congo Square that holds an important place in New Orleans music. It was there, on Sunday afternoons, that enslaved people were allowed to retain their African drumming and dancing traditions. Those vibrations can be heard today in the unique Mardi Gras Indian rhythms and ultimately in jazz. 

Present Day Jazz Scene in New Orleans

The glory of jazz in New Orleans is that classic jazz and its purveyors remain influential to those who play music today. Artists such as Michael White seriously studied jazz's early players, such as fellow clarinetist George Lewis. White became renowned as a keeper of the traditional flame and for expanding the genre. Trumpeter and vocalist Kermit Ruffins, a one-time member of the Rebirth Brass Band, spent his formative musical years watching endless videos of his idol, Louis Armstrong. He shares Satchmo's sense of showmanship and upbeat attitude that is on display when he fronts the Barbeque Swingers at his club, Kermit's Tremé Mother-in-Law Lounge and all around town.

Jazz, being improvised, freedom-loving music, naturally continued to evolve. Modern jazz took hold in New Orleans in the 1950s when local musicians were exposed to trailblazers such as the great trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and when great players like him arrived in the city to perform. Most artists eager to explore the new music played their regular jobs and then got together to woodshed afterward. Pianist Ellis Marsalis was among those to delve into modern sounds seriously. The patriarch of the musical Marsalis family—saxophonist Branford, trumpeter Wynton, trombonist Delfeayo and drummer/vibraphonist Jason—Ellis Marsalis continued his pursuit of modern jazz by leading a band every Friday night at Snug Harbor.

While residing in New York in the early 1980s, Ellis' son Wynton Marsalis put New Orleans's modern jazz on the map. The trumpeter's accomplishments and those of his brother Branford opened the doors for many of this city's up-and-coming players. 

Delfeayo and Jason Marsalis are incredibly active on the New Orleans modern jazz scene. Delfeayo directs his Uptown Jazz Orchestra, and Jason gets the call whenever a solid, expressive drummer is required. New Orleans boasts a wealth of musical families—Marsalis, Jordan, French, Neville, Andrews, Brunious, Johnson, Frazier, Brooks, Boutté—ensuring the jazz continuum in the city where the music was born.

Jan Ramsey is the founder and author of Offbeat Magazine