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 most Fridays 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.
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.
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 claims 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.
The Spotted Cat is always crowded, 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. There's a one drink minimum per set.
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 priced 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 to this 9th Ward bar from the French Quarter. There's a cover, but only on Thursdays.
Traditional jazz music emanates nightly from the Palm Court Jazz Cafe on Decatur, not far from the French Market. The ambiance is classic and the house musicians, who most likely have been playing for decades, start at 8pm. Although the Creole menu can be hit or miss, this place is ever-popular with locals and visitors alike, including families with kids. The crowd tends to be older, but the dance floor is rarely empty. The decor features exposed brick walls, tiled floors and a decadently attractive mahogany bar. This is the place banjo talent Danny Barker praised in his song "Palm Court Strut." There's no cover but there is a $5 entertainment charge added to your check.
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.
Located inside the Royal Sonesta in the French Quarter, Jazz Playhouse offers local talent seven nights a week, no cover charge, in a swank, upscale setting. Some of the city's best jazz performers take the stage, including The James River Movement, Michael Watson's The Alchemy, Luther Kent and Glen David Andrews. A few others not to miss includs 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.
This stalwart spot is where many New Orleans musicians including Harry Connick, Jr. served their apprenticeships. Maison upholds the city's famous jazz and Dixieland tradition, one of the few clubs on Bourbon Street that can stake that claim. The balcony is a fine spot top for an overview of the action, and in the rear of the club is a quaint courtyard with a wrought-iron gate accessing the chill Bar @ 635, a great place for a cocktail. You'll hear local talent here, including bands led by young jazz lion Jamil Sharif, as well as traditional favorites Jamie Wight and Dwayne Burns.
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.
You have two options at Snug Harbor, the jazz institution on Frenchmen Street in the Marigny. Sit at the bar or in the dining room and eat - the steaks and burgers are excellent -and you'll hear whoever is performing on live TV. Or pay the cover charge (it's always worth it) and head into 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. If you can catch drummer Stanton Moore, all the better.