New Orleans

close up of a man playing a trumpet

© iStockphoto.com/Rick Lord

New Orleans was founded by French settlers in the early 18th century near the mouth of the Mississippi river on low-lying sub-tropical swampland. The area's original inhabitants were native American tribes. These and the French were joined by enslaved Africans. The city became part of the United States in 1802 and retained its French, Spanish, African and native American influences. Its status as a major seaport brought in additional musical influences from Britain, the West Indies and Cuba.

New Orleans is renowned as the birthplace of jazz. At the end of the 19th century, local Black musicians adapted the sound of the conventional municipal or military brass band, turning it into a small group style that was more rhythmic with more emphasis on the sounds of individual instruments and collective improvisation between such instruments as trumpet, trombone and clarinet.

The music was often played at public events such as Mardi Gras parades and funeral processions. The great names associated with this style, often called New Orleans or Dixieland jazz, include Buddy Bolden, Kid Ory, Louis Armstrong, and the pianist Jelly Roll Morton who gave the style a Latin tinge. The city also has a small but strong tradition of modern jazz centred on the well-known Marsalis family.

From the 1940s, New Orleans became known for rhythm and blues and rock 'n' roll. Fats Domino and Little Richard recorded numerous hits in the city accompanied by local musicians such as Mac Rebennack (Dr John) who has taken a version of New Orleans music around the world. During the 1960s key rhythm and blues and pop musicians included Allen Toussaint, Irma Thomas and Professor Longhair and the Meters, a group that featured the four Neville brothers - Art, Aaron, Charles and Cyrille.

Street scene at night with buildings lit up with strings of lightbulbs along their balconies

French Quarter in New Orleans © iStockphoto.com/Natalia Bratslavsky

The image of New Orleans as a music city has been magnified and maintained by the city's portrayal in songs, films and books. Some early 20th century jazz tunes were named after New Orleans neighbourhoods, such as 'Basin Street Blues'. There have since been many well-known popular songs about New Orleans, including 'Way Down Yonder in New Orleans', 'New Orleans', 'Planet of New Orleans' and 'House of the Rising Sun', the lament of a prostitute in a French Quarter brothel recorded by many artists.

In the 1940s the city authorities adopted the slogan 'birthplace of jazz', in recognition of the enduring image of New Orleans throughout the world. This coincided with the production of the film New Orleans (1947) featuring Louis Armstrong and other musicians. By the 1990s tourism had become the city's biggest industry. In 1994 the city authorities estimated that visitor spending due to music was $600 million, or 20% of total tourist spending. Traditional or New Orleans jazz can be heard every night at Preservation Hall in the heart of the French Quarter. Music is also an integral part of the carnival and Mardi Gras celebrations and since 1970 the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival has been held annually.

In 2005 Hurricane Katrina left 80% of the city underwater and over 800 people dead. Much of the population was forced to become refugees in other parts of the US, including many musicians. Fats Domino remained but was missing for several days. In 2008 the number of residents was estimated to be little more than half of those who lived in New Orleans before Katrina. Nevertheless, that same year the Music and Heritage Festival returned to its full extent when the Neville Brothers were among the headliners, adding their name to the many New Orleans performers who have raised money for local reconstruction.