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."
For visitors looking to experience the city's diverse musical offerings, Jaffe has some insider advice.
"One of my favorite streets in New Orleans is Royal Street. On any given day there may be two or three bands busking — playing for tips — and they may be as good as any bands you'd hear anywhere in the world."
"My other favorite street is Chartres — it's a little more of a secret, untraveled street because it doesn't have as many businesses along it. One of my favorite things to do is to walk from Canal Street to Jackson Square on Chartres. It's like every block is a different neighborhood. As you approach Jackson Square, it feels like you're walking through a time machine to another era."
If you like a cocktail when you listen to music, and the music is on the street, that's not a problem in New Orleans. You're welcome to take your drink "to go," and Ben Jaffe often does.
"It's a great thing to stop at a place like K-Paul's [Paul Prudhomme's famous eatery] or to stop at the Napoleon House [another local institution] and to have something to eat and drink, and then go and listen to some music on Jackson Square."
While you stand there, drink in hand, you might keep in mind that New Orleans is still struggling back to a new normal after Hurricane Katrina. The Ellis Marsalis Center for Music in the New Orleans Musicians' Village is committed to maintaining and growing the city's musical heritage by providing music, cultural and educational programs for both children and adults.
The Preservation Hall Jazz Band has also staked its future on an educational effort to bring teen musicians into the world of jazz. Ben Jaffe explains that PHJB isn't trying to teach kids how to play, but rather to introduce them to the experiences and skills that can't be learned from books or even from recordings. Jaffe, a tuba player whose parents started the Preservation Hall band in a former art gallery in 1961, remembers how he learned the secrets of the New Orleans sound.
"It's like learning Grandma's recipe for red beans and rice — you put a pinch of this in, and a little bit of that, and I can't show you what this is, and maybe I'll show you that. We actually graduated our first class of musicians last year. And they came to perform with us at Carnegie Hall for our 50th anniversary. It's a beautiful and wonderful program."
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