A Brief History of New Orleans Music

Updated on November 17, 2017
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Music is a diverse form of expression that takes in many styles. It's a popular field that can only be briefly sampled in a short article.

Preservation Hall

Preservation Hall in the Vieux Carre has been a popular venue for Dixieland performers for many decades
Preservation Hall in the Vieux Carre has been a popular venue for Dixieland performers for many decades

Music From the Big Easy

New Orleans has been putting out good music for a long time. Travel there today and on any given day, you can take in all kinds of tunes and styles. The music is everywhere. You can hear it in the bars and clubs, at church, or out on the street. And then once a year, late in the winter season, the whole city goes all out with floats parades, marching bands, and a whole variety of musical expression. Even the pro NFL football team has within its name an unmistakable reference to an old and very popular spiritual, "When the Saints Go Marchin' In."

Marching Bands

St. Augustine's HS in New Orleans has a popular marching band that participates in many parades
St. Augustine's HS in New Orleans has a popular marching band that participates in many parades

The Place Where All New Orleans Music Is Measured

No way around it, Louis Armstrong is the kingpin of New Orleans music. Even though he left the city for greener pastures when he was relatively young, nearly every musician to perform in the city owes at least a little debt to the vastly creative and entertaining trumpet player.

In 1923 Joseph "King" Oliver in Chicago had heard about Louis's talent and sent for him so he could join "King" Oliver's Creole Jazz Band. Joseph served as an excellent mentor for the New Orleans native. As it turned out, the musical talent of Louis Armstrong was so great that he dominated every band he played in until, of course, he formed his own band.


Louis Armstrong was also known by his childhood nickname, Satchmo
Louis Armstrong was also known by his childhood nickname, Satchmo


"Satchmo" is a childhood nickname for Louis Armstrong that stayed with the performer throughout his life. It is an abbreviation for two words, satchel and mouth, which together, were often used to describe Louis when he was young. All they meant was that the New Orleans jazz artist had a very big mouth. As it turned out, one ideal for playing the trumpet and the cornet.

Before Satchmo

In the late 1800s, jazz bands abounded in the city of New Orleans. Many of the musicians were French-descended people of color. Often the musicians had some training and could read music. Not only did they play for many of the wealthier families in the city, but also could found entertaining the working classes at social events.

From this milieu, a few talented musicians started to receive recognition and fame that would take them to some big venues around the country.

A Real Jazz Funeral

There is nothing quite like a musical sendoff for a New Orleans jazz great
There is nothing quite like a musical sendoff for a New Orleans jazz great | Source

New Orleans During Prohibition

The 18th amendment, better known as Prohibition, had little or no effect on the consumption of alcoholic beverages in New Orleans. With its close proximity to the Gulf of Mexico, the city became a gateway for bootleggers and smugglers bringing contraband booze into the country from Mexico and the Caribbean.

Not surprisingly, the good life continued during Prohibition, especially for America's newly affluent and upwardly mobile younger population. This colorful time period in our nation's history was also known as the Jazz Age, due partly to the success and popularity of the New Orleans style jazz bands, similar to one that Louis Armstrong joined when he went to Chicago.

Strangely enough, the Jazz Age may have been most avidly celebrated in places like New York, San Francisco, and Chicago rather than the city from where the music originated. To emphasize this point you might want to take a listen to Arkansas native Louis Jordan sing about a wild party gone bad in New Orleans.

P.S. Louis Jordan's Saturday Night Fish Fry has been described as being one of the very first Rock n Roll songs.

Saturday Night Fish Fry

After Satchmo

When Louis Armstrong left New Orleans, he took a piece of the city with him. In the wake of his absence, New Orleans music hummed and simmered, but failed to produce any great musical talent until after WWII had come to an end. During the time between the wars, Prohibition was passed and repealed, but the parades still went on the bands still played and thanks to a host of enterprising bootleggers, the booze continued to flow.

After the Big One

After WWII, the music scene came alive again producing a number of performers, who could cut a good record and fill a local night club or a music hall. Not only that, but the old biases against musicians of color were slowly eroding away so that upcoming stars such as Fats Domino, Dave Bartholomew and the Dixie Cups could more often play to mixed audiences. And then there was always the formidable presence of Louis Armstrong, who despite the fact that he no longer lived in the Crescent City, still cast a huge shadow over the Big Easy music scene.

Yellow Moon by the Neville Brothers

The New Orleans Piano Men

Henry Roeland "Roy" Byrd, better known, as "Professor Longhair", was the first of many fine New Orleans piano players that continues to this day. Though not the first "piano man" to come out of the Big Easy, "Fess", as many locals called him was definitely one of the most colorful and influential. With a style that has been described as part-Caribbean, part boogie-woogie and part rhythm and blues, Professor Longhair created a unique and popular style of piano playing that has influenced many musicians such as Huey "Piano" Smith, James Booker, Doctor John and most recently the one lady of the group Marcia Ball.

Professor Longhair, Doctor John, Earl King and the Meters

New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival

Begun in 1970 as a one weekend event that cost only three dollars for the entire show, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival has grown to a major event that attracts hundreds of thousands of music lovers. After a couple of low key festivals at Congo Square, the popular event was moved to Fair Grounds Race Track in Old Gentilly. Then, several years later, a limited edition silk screen poster was issued for each gathering and the quickly the crowds began to grow. With the help of Shell Oil, the jazz and heritage fest survived Katrina and remains a lively part of the city's entertainment calendar.

My Take

I lived in the Crescent City (early to mid 80s) for seven years and as an outsider dwelling in the city, I was amazed at how rich the music heritage really was. One of the best ways to gauge this musical diversity was to tune in to one of the local radio stations that played nothing but New Orleans music. Over the course of many listening hours, it was rare to hear a song played twice, for the music that just kept rolling. Though New Orleans and Southern Louisiana lack the big name stars, the large number of high quality musicians that are hardly known outside the region is astounding.

© 2017 Harry Nielsen


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