Over the past few months, The New York Times has asked experts to answer the question, What would you play a friend to make them fall in love with jazz? We’ve covered lots of artists, instruments and musical styles — but this time we’re tackling a whole city.
The United States is full of cities with their own rich jazz histories, but none goes back as far as New Orleans. And the music remains very much a part of life there. To really discover the beauty of New Orleans jazz, the in-person experience is key. This is a participatory, effervescent music. But unless you’re about to book a trip, why not take five minutes to read and listen, and see if you get hooked?
Jazz’s roots can be traced back to Congo Square, a plaza in central New Orleans that had been a gathering place for Native Americans before the arrival of Europeans. In the antebellum era, enslaved Africans often gathered there to play music and dance, using whatever instruments they had — bamboula drums, horns, bells, banjos — and carrying their cultural traditions forward. After emancipation, the country blues being played on plantations across the South blended with the music played by New Orleans society orchestras and other African diasporic styles blowing in from the Caribbean, creating the polyphonic improvised sound we now know as early jazz.
In the 100-plus years since then, New Orleans has remained something of a cultural anomaly in the United States: rooted in its own traditions, and fortified against broader commercial trends. Music has been its strongest fortifier. Marching bands are heard at funerals and second-line parades on most weekends. On Mardi Gras and St. Joseph’s Day, culture-bearers in resplendent, feathery regalia march and perform in honor of the Native Americans who once sheltered fugitives fleeing slavery. And music is simply a way of life: Unless a storm is brewing, you won’t find a single night in New Orleans without multiple bands playing somewhere.
While brass bands and traditional jazz lie at the core of this city’s traditions — and no conversation about them can ever go on too long without a mention (or three) of Louis Armstrong — New Orleans has also fostered greatness across the musical spectrum: from Black classical composers to post-bop royalty to avant-garde experimentalists. The songs below are just the tip of the iceberg. Find a playlist at the bottom of the article, and be sure to leave your own favorites in the comments.
Wendell Pierce, actor
“West End Blues” by Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five
“West End Blues” embodies the complexity of this music — which is what New Orleans is all about. It’s the American aesthetic of freedom within form: complex ideas that are also displayed in simple ways. We have technical proficiency, but at the same time uninhibited creative expression. The track starts off with one of the most famous clarion calls in music, one of the most famous licks in the world: Louis Armstrong, exhibiting pure genius and virtuosity, all alone for 12 seconds. Like a spiritual epiphany, this explosion of improvisation embodies the innate humanity of the music and foreshadows the brilliance of bebop yet to come. And then the band comes in and he goes into this simple, beautiful, languid, soulful encapsulation of what it’s like, for someone who’s never been to the West End of New Orleans, to sit out by Lake Pontchartrain on a Sunday afternoon. This is the “West End Blues.”
Within the first 30 seconds of the song it gives you the best of what America can be, and what New Orleans is: that cacophony of all kinds of things, so many different influences becoming this one rich, complex dish. E pluribus unum. We are in America in New Orleans, but we are the northernmost Caribbean city, influenced by the French and the African, Germans and Native Americans. And it is the epitome of what America is supposed to be. That’s why jazz is the great American artistic form. A multitude of complexities, broken down into something so universally understood. (Listen on YouTube)
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Ned Sublette, author and musician
“Bouncing Around” by Piron’s New Orleans Orchestra
I always go back to “Bouncing Around,” by A.J. Piron’s New Orleans Orchestra, a working New Orleans band, recorded 100 years ago in New York City. It’s jazz at an early stage: this is still the era of everyone-at-once polyphony. Every bit of the musical space is full of theme, counter-theme and rhythm, but we don’t have soloists yet. It’s clearly music for dancing, or at least for bouncing around. That word keeps coming back in New Orleans: bounce. I like the translated Spanish title, seen in parentheses on the 78: “Brincando Locamente” — bouncing madly. (Listen on YouTube)
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Melissa A. Weber (a.k.a. Soul Sister), D.J. and scholar
“Right Foot” by Rebirth Brass Band
A special characteristic of New Orleans jazz is its function as dance music. It invites audience members to not spectate, but participate. In the New Orleans brass band jazz tradition, the pioneering Rebirth Brass Band has specialized in making people dance since the group formed 40 years ago, while its founding members were teenagers. In 2008, they rerecorded their original song “Put Your Right Foot Forward,” first released in the mid-1980s as a 45 on the local SYLA label. It’s a classic that other brass bands have added to their repertoires, whether on the stage or in the second-line streets. (Listen on YouTube)
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Adonis Rose, drummer and bandleader
“New Orleans” by Leroy Jones
It is very difficult to find songs that have the ability to transport the listener to a place or time, but I believe that “New Orleans,” written by Hoagy Carmichael, comes close. Although Carmichael was not a New Orleanian, the song melody and lyrics speak to the character and romanticism of the Crescent City. New Orleans is warm, culturally rich, diverse, charming and romantic. All of which is represented in this timeless classic.
The song was not widely recorded, but there are a few versions of it that I really enjoy listening to. My favorite version is from the New Orleans jazz legend and trumpeter Leroy Jones, from his 1994 release “Mo’ Cream From the Crop.” This version of “New Orleans” is an original arrangement done by Leroy, and captures the beauty, intensity, creativeness, spontaneity and groove of what New Orleans is. Leroy interprets the song with deep passion and connection to the city. (Listen on YouTube)
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Charlie Gabriel, saxophonist and multi-instrumentalist
“Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans” by Louis Armstrong
The words of this song tell you about the weather in the city, and the city itself. It just explains to you that New Orleans is such a beautiful place to be, especially with its culture. You have to come to New Orleans to really enjoy it — and this song explains why you should. When Pops, Louis Armstrong, does the song, he tells it in such a way that you can almost feel the words. I’ve been playing in New Orleans since I was 11 or 12 years old. What happens is, you bring that along with you: the feeling of the city, the personality, the city itself, the faces. You carry that within your music. (Listen on YouTube)
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Giovanni Russonello, Times jazz critic
“None of My Jelly Roll” by Sweet Emma Barrett
The self-taught pianist and vocalist Emma Barrett was born in 1897 and came of age performing in the speakeasies and early “jass” orchestras that birthed the genre. It wasn’t uncommon for women to hold piano duties in these early New Orleans bands — but it took a particular kind of grace and confidence to endure the condescension (and worse) that was routinely directed their way. Maybe that attitude is what earned her the name “Sweet Emma.” Maybe it just looked good on a chalkboard outside the club. Her less well-known, more descriptive nickname was “The Bell Gal,” because of the bells that she wore on her red garters; they would jangle in time as she patted her foot and roughed up the keys. On “None of My Jelly Roll,” from a 1963 recording, Barrett sings an old blues lyric full of playful double entendre and shows off her rolling barroom piano style. This approach — developed from ragtime and Caribbean dance music; replicating the work of a full brass band in just two hands — would evolve through later legends like Professor Longhair, James Booker and Dr. John, and remains a calling card for Crescent City pianists today. (Listen on YouTube)
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Courtney Bryan, composer and pianist
“River Niger” by the Improvisational Arts Quintet
The legendary musician, educator and patriarch Sir Edward (Kidd) Jordan (1935-2023) lived by improvisation, and his music reverberated with sounds of freedom throughout his 87 years. In 1975, Jordan formed the Improvisational Arts Quintet with like-minded creative musicians from Louisiana and Mississippi. Jordan composed “River Niger,” inspired by a trip to West Africa, and recorded it with I.A.Q. on an album series produced by Kalamu ya Salaam: “The New New Orleans Music: New Music Jazz” (Rounder Records, 1988). “River Niger” has an infectious and captivating energy, rooted on a rhythmic B-flat minor ostinato, yet open in form with each soloist leading us on a journey throughout the recording.
Jordan taught his students “River Niger,” and regardless of level, beginner or advanced, each student had an important role — whether playing the pentatonic scale according to his conduction or taking solo or collective free improvisations. Listen to “River Niger” and you might levitate. (Listen on YouTube)
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P.J. Morton, musician
“On the Sunny Side of the Street” by Louis Armstrong
The melody of “On the Sunny Side of the Street” always immediately makes me smile, and the way the other horns are dancing in this version — recorded in 1956 for the Decca label, with Armstrong backed by a 10-piece band — always reminds me of home. And of course, Louis Armstrong is so important to the story of New Orleans and to the world. (Listen on YouTube)
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Tarriona (Tank) Ball, vocalist and bandleader
“Groove City” by Chocolate Milk
This song is so nostalgic for me! It gives me all the feels, and really makes me feel so lucky to be from such a unique place as New Orleans. It also makes me think of my dad for some reason! Maybe when I was a small child he would play the record, but it makes me feel close to home and even closer to him.
Chocolate Milk is a band from New Orleans that was active in the 1970s and early 1980s. “Groove City” was released in 1977 and I’ve been hooked since I heard it. The moment it comes on all I see is family barbecues, being on the lake in New Orleans, and just freedom. It talks about how you can forget your cares; it reminds you to not worry about your clothes and that “all you gotta do is let down your hair and be free,/No special pattern to follow, be what you wanna be.”
I remember being in Amsterdam for my birthday, listening to this song nonstop, and I felt so close to home and my family though I was so far away. That’s why I would share this song with others — because it’s almost as if the lyrics tell a story of where you can go to have a really special time here. (Listen on YouTube)
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Marcus J. Moore, jazz writer
“Guinnevere” by Chief Xian aTunde Adjuah
I’m always taken by the unbridled force of Chief Xian aTunde Adjuah. I’ve seen plenty of his shows over the past decade; each time, he sizes up the microphone with his custom fluegelhorn, then attacks it with blistering chords, cutting through bar chatter and forks scraping porcelain plates. And he doesn’t mind challenging the audience: During one of his shows at the Blue Note last year, he made everyone get up from their seats — a rarity for that venue — and didn’t let us sit down until we danced and sang his lyrics back to him. It was done lovingly; his tapestry of Black music elicits a strong sense of community. When I think of his recorded work, I jump to the song “Guinnevere,” the almost 11-minute epic from his 2020 live album, “Axiom,” also performed at the Blue Note, but right at the start of the pandemic. It reimagines a Miles Davis song of the same name with quickened percussion and ascendant wails, brightening the “Bitches Brew”-era cut into a vigorous funk groove akin to the genre-bending compositions that epitomized jazz between the late ’60s and early ’70s. Adjuah’s intensity is palpable throughout, from the brief interplay with the percussionist Weedie Braimah shortly after the four-minute mark to the subtle, fluttering notes he plays near the end. At a time when the world didn’t know what to make of the air, Adjuah flipped uncertainty into something gorgeous. (Listen on YouTube)