Jazz is the beating heart of New Orleans, as important to this city's soul as a rich pot of gumbo, a second line parade and the charming architecture that defines neighborhoods like the French Quarter and the Marigny. To listen to local musicians play authentic New Orleans jazz, you need to dive into neighborhoods beyond the Bourbon Street scene, although there are still a few must-visit clubs in the French Quarter. One of the best places to start is the Marigny, just up from where the Mississippi bends into its famous crescent, an original Creole neighborhood named for 19th century aristocrat and good-time-guy Bernard de Marigny de Mandeville. In the past decade or so, the Marigny has emerged as a mecca of nightclubs, bars and restaurants, most of which are frequented by a mix of both locals and tourists. Here is arguably the best place in town to hear all kinds of live music, including straight ahead jazz. On any given evening, you can swing dance at Spotted Cat, hear brass at d.b.a. and maybe a set of Ellis Marsalis’ straight ahead jazz at Snug Harbor. There are clubs in the Treme, uptown on Oak Street, along St. Claude Avenue. All for your listening pleasure.
Monteleone Hotel Carousel Bar
All dressed up and ready for some cheek to cheek? This revolving bar in the elegant Monteleone Hotel fits the bill. With live music by talented vocalists like Robin Barnes and Lena Prima, the Carousel Bar makes anybody feel like a sophisti-cat. The working carousel is just too much fun, first installed in 1949 and a draw for celebrities including Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams. Generally the crowd varies from traveling business professionals to die hard regulars and date nighters. Happy hour is always busy, so busy sometimes that the music can The decor is exquisite and the mood elegant. (504-523-3341, 800-321-6710)
Everyone -- old and young, from far and near -- feels welcome at this cozy German-style beer hall. Patrons, seated near the fireplace or on the patio, puff cigars, down their favorite imported beers or sip cocktails made with European schnapps. The club's live Dixieland jazz never disappoints with local luminaries onstage nightly. Fritzel's claimes to be the city's oldest operating jazz club, a fixture on Bourbon Street since the 60s in a 19th century building with great architectural bones. Although the atmosphere is lively, the audience comes to hear the music, not something too common along this stretch of Bourbon Street. (504-586-4800)
The Spotted Cat
The Spotted Cat is a hole in the wall, it's true, but if you like gypsy swing and traditional jazz, you'll fall in love with this Frenchmen Street sweet spot. Crowds always spill onto the sidewalks during festival times and game weekends, so expect to stand and even dance in place, elbow room is usually at a premium. Drinks are cheap and there's never a cover charge. On any given night you may catch blues, jazz, latin or a mix of genres, always energetic and danceable tunes. The space is intimate and the energy is contagious, so be ready for an experience. (206-337-3273)
Don't let the seedy environs deter you from this casual, comfortable Bywater hangout. Vaughan's is one of the best dive bars in town, brought to local infamy by Kermit Ruffins; regular Thursday night gigs. Kermit retired last year from late night shows, but Vaughan's is still home to funky live jazz every Thursday night. The bar is friendly, drinks are strong and well prices and the crowd is usually more locals than tourists. Vaughan's is off the beaten path, although not as far afield as it was even five years ago - the Bywater is booming. Grab a taxi or pedi-cab to get here from the French Quarter. Cover charge Thursdays only. (504-947-5562)
Sweet Lorraine's offers outstanding blues and jazz shows along with spoken word and jazz poetry. The luxurious music hall seats 200, and offers great sound and an onsite restaurant and bar serve upscale regional cuisine and specialty cocktails. Popcorn crawfish, corn and crabmeat bisque, red beans and rice with fried pork or chicken, and a variety of steak, chicken and seafood main courses are among the kitchen's offerings. Located in the 7th Ward on St. Claude Avenue, this hidden dynamo is off the general tourist's radar, a quick cab ride from anywhere in the French Quarter. The live jazz Sunday brunch is especially popular with the locals. (504-945-9654)
Pressed tin walls and a narrow dance floor are part of the charm of the Maple Leaf. Live bands play genres like Zydeco, rock, blues and funk showcasing the city's best talent. Unannounced sit-ins are not uncommon; Bruce Springsteen once dropped in to jam with The Iguanas and Jon Cleary's band was once joined by his frequent employer, Bonnie Raitt. Because the club is close to both Loyola and Tulane Universities, the Maple Leaf attracts a diverse crowd that includes college students, professors, tourists and hard-core music aficionados. The venue is also one of New Orleans' premier Spoken Word locations. (504-866-9359)
Irvin Mayfield's Jazz Playhouse
Located inside the Royal Sonesta in the French Quarter, Irvin Mayfield's Jazz Playhouse offers local talent seven nights a week, no cover charge, in a swank, upscale setting. Mayfield is a Grammy-award winning jazz trumpet player and educator who has served as Cultural Ambassador of the City of New Orleans and State of Louisiana since 2003. He's often onstage, along with local luminaries like Germaine Bazzle, a soulful jazz singer and Gerald French and the Original Tuxedo Jazz Band, a troupe that defines old school class and style. Every Friday night around midnight, a few of New Orleans' best burlesque performers from the city's top troupes also perform. ((504) 553-2299)
Ooh Poo Pah Doo
When the late R&B legend Jessie Hill wrote the song Ooh Poo Pah Doo in 1960, he had no idea it would become a New Orleans brass standard, interpreted by groups like Hot 8 Brass and trumpet player Kermit Ruffins. Hill's catchy hit song is also the inspiration for the Ooh Poo Pah Doo bar at 1931 Orleans Avenue in Treme, opened in October 2013 by his daughter Judy and her husband Brian Broadus. Judy's nephew, Hill's grandson, happens to be Troy "Trombone Shorty" Andrews, just one of the family's talented offspring.
Live music is featured at the bar most weekends, usually provided by Grammy-nominated Guitar Slim Jr., who welcomes a wide array of performers to the stage to sit in with the band. (501-435-3384)
Just show up and expect to stand in line at this wonderful venue just off of Bourbon Street. But you can also order tickets online and go in at the front of the crowds, guaranteeing your party one of the hard bench seats in front of the band. Preservation Hall is a historic New Orleans tradition that spotlights talented local band leaders and sidemen that draw an international crowd of music fans. The decor is basic and consists of benches and cushions. There is no food or drink allowed in the hall and crowds are usually standing room only. Bring the kids - this is one of the few places that welcome all ages. (504-522-2841, 800-785-5772)
Snug Harbor Jazz Bistro
You have two options at Snug Harbor, the jazz institution on Frenchmen Street in the Marigny. Sit at the bar and eat - the steaks and burgers are excellent -and watch and list to whoever is performing upstairs on live TV. Or pay the cover charge (it's always worth it) and head upstairs to the intimate little club called the "classiest jazz club in New Orleans" by The New York Times. Snug, which was frequently mentioned in reverential terms on the HBO series Treme, attracts a crowd of avid listeners, so if you ignore the band and chatter, expect to get shushed. (504-949-0696)
About Beth D'Addono
Beth D'Addono is a food and travel writer obsessed with flavor, exploring cultures, street music and the city of New Orleans.
After spending years flying in regularly to research stories, attend festivals and eat the city's amazing cuisine, this New Orleanian at heart moved to the Crescent City full time in 2012.
Beth writes about New Orleans and other destinations for outlets including USAToday, AAA Traveler, Wells Fargo Conversations, Philadelphia Daily News, Taste, Fodor's and others.
Her new book The Hunt New Orleans is a carefully curated insider's guide to indie shops and restaurants around town.
Read more about Beth D'Addono here.
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