It's the birthplace of jazz and the cradle of funk. The place where African beats and Cuban rhythm collided and adapted, creating new sounds. New Orleans is America's musical laboratory, where traditions from other cultures interact and combine into American originals. And there's no better guide to the region's musical heritage than Ben Jaffe, the second-generation leader of the famed Preservation Hall Jazz Band.
The first step toward understanding the city's music is to discard any notion that New Orleans is a Southern city, and think in a more comprehensive way about its history and geography.
"Unlike anywhere else in the United States, we were a French city, we were also a Spanish city, before that we were Native American," Jaffe says. "And the African influence here is palpable. We have much more in common culturally with Cuba, Haiti or the West Indies. We're the northern Caribbean. When people think of the city that way, you see a light bulb go off in their head."
But there's more to the music of New Orleans than its regional origins. There's the characteristic joyful sound, which, Jaffe explains, comes from the fact that most musicians get their start performing in houses of worship.
"Most early musicians in New Orleans, and even to this day, are first exposed to music and singing and performing in a church environment. In New Orleans, going to church is a celebration. I never understood when people in the movies or television would always portray church as something everybody dreaded on Sundays … In New Orleans, going to church is something you look forward to. It's a celebration of music, a celebration of life. It's a beautiful, beautiful experience."
The next thing to understand about New Orleans music is that it's made for dancing.
"Jelly Roll Morton and King Oliver and Louis Armstrong — Papa Celestin, Buddy Bolden — when all these early New Orleans jazz musicians were creating this style of music it was being performed at dances and parlors and maybe off-color places, like Storyville [the infamous red light district]. It had to be very engaging and something people could dance to."
Something people could to dance to — even at a funeral. Jaffe describes another New Orleans tradition, the "second line," where family and friends follow musicians and a horse-drawn hearse through city streets.
"New Orleans funerals are joyful, a community event, where the entire community comes out to honor and celebrate the person's life with music."