While I have worked with many jazz musicians over the years, I am admittedly no expert on the matter. I cannot easily recall which cats play when (or what instrument for that matter) and I cannot tell tunes by name. But what I can tell you is where to find some of the best jazz in the city that started it all.
Entering the world-famous (or infamous, depending on how you slice it) French Quarter, Preservation Hall was established in 1961 as a way to – you guessed it – preserve the legacy of traditional jazz music in the city. Between the music venue, the touring band, and the non-profit organization, the hall has helped rejuvenate the music classically as well as in a contemporary light as evidenced by their more recent collaborations with artists like Blind Boys of Alabama, Mos Def, Arcade Fire, and My Morning Jacket, to name a few. They host multiple shows per evening over 350 nights a year in an intimate, acoustic setting and are waiting for you to join them.
On the unofficial dividing line between the French Quarter and the Marigny, you’ll find Snug Harbor which boasts live, unadulterated jazz seven nights a week and has been since the 1980s. Housed in what used to be a storefront in the 1800s, Snug is the jazz club you picture when you think of New Orleans—small, candlelit tables with a no-nonsense greeter at the door and delicious smells emanating from the kitchen.
The Spotted Cat
You won’t have to go far to get to the next stop on this venue train. Right across the street from Snug Harbor sits The Spotted Cat Music Club. One of my favorite places to be on a Sunday night, the crowd of local cats outside the storefront window is a site to see in and of itself. Carve yourself out an afternoon and evening to grab a beer (or two or three), post up, and watch a few sets in a row while watching the sun set on Frenchmen Street.
The Jazz and Heritage Foundation
The Jazz and Heritage Foundation, located just outside the French Quarter on Rampart Street, was initially set up as the non-profit arm of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival in an effort to preserve the knowledge of the city’s unique culture for generations after us. Now, almost 50 years later, the foundation continues to uphold their mission to promote, preserve, and perpetuate the musical culture and heritage of Louisiana communities and has developed a great number of local programs to reflect that.
For one of the most authentic jazz experiences in New Orleans, do not skip a trip to Prime Example. Julius Kimbrough’s jazz club is a wonderfully vibrant venue with purple walls, second line umbrellas dangling from the ceiling, and Chef Germaine’s gumbo (as well as a ton of other New Orleans dishes) cooking to perfection in the kitchen on the second floor. The music that floats from the doors of this place will never disappoint because whenever someone takes the stage at Prime Example, it is sure to be some of the best jazz you’ll hear anywhere.
The Bywater neighborhood is our next stop and it is home to Bacchanal Wine, a wine shop and a restaurant located in the backyard of the oldest house in the Bywater. And yes, they do have some of the best jazz musicians in New Orleans playing there each and every night of the week. Bacchanal has been delivering wine, cheese, craft plates, cocktails, and music to New Orleanians since before Hurricane Katrina and was one of the first businesses to re-open its battered doors following the storm bringing back a little peace and joy to the neighborhood.
Maple Leaf Bar
Our last is tried and true and beloved in the hearts of all New Orleanians. No jazz tour of the city would be complete without stepping inside Maple Leaf Bar on Oak Street. Home to the famous Rebirth Brass Band which plays a hometown show there every Tuesday night, the Leaf has your back with jazz, funk, blues, and other local acts every other night of the week. Step into the garden in the back for a little rest if it gets too sweaty in there.