For most of its history, New Orleans’ streets and public gathering places have played host to live music performances, from Congo Square’s rich past of drumming, dancing and singing, to church-based parades through neighborhoods across town. Mardi Gras Indians who march through the streets on Mardi Gras Day, and St. Joseph’s Night while performing their own unique style of music must be mentioned. Despite the many changes New Orleans has undergone in the past decade, music remains an integral aspect of the city’s street culture.
We put together a primer on when and where to find great live street music, and some tips to keep this rich and colorful tradition alive.
1. Jackson Square
The space between the gated park and St. Louis Cathedral in Jackson Square has long served as a stomping ground for brass band musicians looking for opportunities to perform outside of parades and concerts. Anthony “Tuba Fats” Lacen, the leader of the beloved Chosen Few brass band and a mentor to younger generations of traditional New Orleans jazz practitioners, played for tips for many years in the square. Although he passed away in 2004, some of his former bandmates still spend time in the square, honoring the tradition of the music and sharing it with passersby. While the lineup in the square changes daily and hourly, keep an eye out for clarinetist Doreen Ketchens.
2. Royal Street Pedestrian Mall performance space
Musicians, dancers, mimes, puppeteers and singers set up shop on Royal Street most days between Bienville and Orleans Streets. Look for larger jazz-based ensembles on the corner of Royal and St. Peter streets. A little further up the street towards Esplanade near Cafe Amelie is a hotspot for duo performances. Although the city normally allows performers and pedestrians to take over from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekdays and 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. on weekends, construction that began on Bourbon Street in July 2017 necessitated a detour for cars down the normally foot-traffic only five-block strip. Artists can still perform despite the detour though. Note that the reopening of the pedestrian mall will depend on the completion of the work on Bourbon Street, the NOPD says.
3. Chartres and Conti Streets
Kora player Jonah Tobias Gropper has made this corner his mainstay, although he frequently performs on Jackson Square as well. Keep an eye out for him here when he returns from his August tour.
4. Bourbon and Canal Streets
The TBC Brass Band took up a residency of sorts on this corner shortly after Hurricane Katrina. It has since remained a popular spot for impromptu brass band performances, making it a nice spot to check out if you’re heading into the French Quarter from the streetcar, which ends its route just across the street. Note that live performances on Bourbon Street are only allowed between 6 a.m. and 8 p.m.
5. Frenchmen and Royal Streets
This bustling Frenchmen Street corner has also become a hotspot for brass bands over the past 10 years. Most nights the corner is kept dancing by the Young Fellaz brass band led by Sam Jackson.
6. French Market
While the French Market is a great place to see live music, the rules here are more stringent for street performers, making it less of a go-to venue. Though brass bands are often booked to play in Dumaine Plaza and Washington Artillery Park. The occasional roving acoustic musician isn’t out of the ordinary either.
7. Parades and Mardi Gras Indians – Your best bet for the latest information on what’s happening in the brass band and Mardi Gras Indian communities is WWOZ FM’s Takin’ It to the Streets section. Check it out for Sunday social aid and pleasure club parade routes, Mardi Gras Indian practices and events. The Backstreet Cultural Museum is a good resource for a brief and fun education on the history of New Orleans street culture.
Things to Know
Tips are Encouraged – For many New Orleans musicians, busking for tips is a way to practice performing live without the pressure of getting a club gig. Many of the street artists are talented, and those who may seem less so, are working hard on their craft. If you love spending time in a city whose streets are full of music, we encourage you to do what you can to help keep it that way! Tipping the bands is a great place to start. For the artists you love, buying a CD can help you keep their music alive once you head home. We hate to see you go!
Clear the Street – Another important thing to keep in mind is that musicians in most parts of the city are allowed to perform outside as long as they are not “obstructing the normal rights of way.” If a crowd forms that blocks traffic, it’s on the musicians. So if you love what you’re hearing, keep an eye on your surroundings, keep the streets clear, and keep the music going.
Stay in the Know – The website maintained by MACCNO, the Music and Cultural Coalition of New Orleans, features lots of helpful information for visitors, residents and musicians alike when it comes to street performance. Give it a quick read before you head out for the day, and enjoy the street sounds of New Orleans!