The sound of N’Awlins

Charukesi Ramadurai | Updated on January 16, 2018 Published on October 21, 2016
Thank you for the music: Long before nomenclature like jazz or blues came into being, the various ethnic communities in New Orleans—French, Spanish, African and Irish—were drawn together by their love of music. Seen here is a quintet of jazz musicians in the city’s French Quarter.

Thank you for the music: Long before nomenclature like jazz or blues came into being, the various ethnic communities in New Orleans—French, Spanish, African and Irish—were drawn together by their love of music. Seen here is a quintet of jazz musicians in the city’s French Quarter.   -  Shutterstock

Louis Armstrong   -  The Hindu Archives

Believers say that many forms of music — other than just jazz — owe their genesis to this lively little town by the Mississippi

It’s mid morning at Jackson Square in the heart of New Orleans’s French Quarter. The street artists are just setting up shop, hanging their paintings on the railings of the park in the centre.

A busker covered in gold paint is delighting the audience with his tricks from the top of an upturned wooden box. A clairvoyant having a dull start to her day beckons me, as I studiously ignore her and walk on.

I can hear music from the other end of the street. By the time I reach the spot, an informal brass band has begun jamming, in the true tradition of jazz. As if on cue, a group of pre-teen schoolchildren, shepherded by a couple of harried teachers, reaches the spot. They stop short. A few bold ones begin to dance, and the teachers join in, as the younger trombonist in the band claps in time to the notes.

This could be a scene from any time, any place in New Orleans.

Music is in New Orleans’s blood. Even before nomenclature like jazz or blues came into being, the various ethnic communities here — French, Spanish, African and Irish — were drawn together by their love of music. Jazz, it is said, evolved from existing dance music and funeral marches of the town, first made popular by bandleader Buddy Bolden in the last years of the 19th century.

However, the musical tradition of New Orleans started ages before that, influenced by African cultures, the way its food still is. Music was always popular and available to everyone here because, unlike in the other southern states, slaves were allowed to gather together on Sunday afternoons (not out of any humane intention but out of fear of rebellion).

Congo Square then became the epicentre of African music and dance. That included drums and, over time, other instruments. Locals too started frequenting these congregations, where the music was ideally suited for dancing.

This kind of music, although without a formal name, became popular among both musicians and listeners because it had room for spontaneity and freedom of expression. For a long time, it was based on oral traditions, and the concept of Collective Improvisation (which is the bedrock of jazz) took shape.

Jazz, as we know it today, was first recorded in 1917, by the New Orleans group Original Dixieland Jazz Band in New York. Within six months of its release, the Livery Stable Blues record sold over a million copies, and sowed the seeds for New Orleans’s association with jazz.

And there is no questioning this town’s kinship with jazz; its airport is named after its most famous musician, Louis Armstrong. This superstar of jazz rose to fame in the 1920s, and although he left his hometown at a young age, is still remembered as a N’Awlins boy.

Armstrong is also believed to have said, “If you have to ask what jazz is, you’ll never know.” In my time in New Orleans, I hear a variety of jazz sounds, from the classic Preservation Hall band to the new-age Kermit Ruffins on his trumpet. And I realise that I, for one, would never truly know how to define the music, but I also know that I enjoy it all. And for me, that is enough.

It is a little-known fact that many other forms of music owe their beginnings to this lively little town by the Mississippi. I learn about it during a walking tour of the French Quarter with former journalist Chris Rose. He now conducts what he calls a ‘Magical Musical Mystery History Tour’.

In a way, his tour lives up to its bombastic name, as he expands upon the theory put forth by blues singer K-Doe: “I’m not sure but I think all music came from New Orleans.” In Rose’s own words, “nothing significant in American music has happened that New Orleans has not touched in some way.”

Through these two-odd hours around the French Quarter, he approaches one musical genre after another and presents a case for tracing the roots of each to New Orleans or, at the very least, Louisiana.

Take America’s darling, Elvis Presley. The world first heard the voice of Presley (and then saw him in his first television appearance) through the airwaves of Louisiana Hayride, a country music show broadcast from Shreveport in 1954 (Hayride is also credited with promoting talents like Jim Reeves and Johnny Cash).

Then there was rhythm and blues (R&B), which grew out of New Orleans jazz after World War II (thanks to greats like Fat Dominos and Dave Bartholomew), with its emphasis on piano and saxophone music.

And to this day, the very air of New Orleans resonates with the sounds of music.

Travel Log

Getting there

Fly into New York’s JFK airport on Etihad or Turkish Airlines and take a connecting flight to New Orleans on Delta or American Airlines.


There are several chain hotels like Marriott, Loews and Sheraton within walking distance of the French Quarter.


The best places to listen to jazz in New Orleans are on Frenchman Street (The Spotted Cat, Snug Harbor, The Maison are especially recommended).

Charukesi Ramadurai is Bengaluru-based freelance writer-photographer

Published on October 21, 2016

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