Louisiana: New Orleans Jazz National Historic Park

Statue of Louis Armstrong in Algiers
Statue of Louis Armstrong in Algiers

Courtesy of Wally Gobetz, Flickr's Creative Commons

New Orleans is jazz. Perhaps most associated with the 1920s, jazz is the music of change. Built on the syncopated rhythms of ragtime, jazz is modern and less formal. It has an electric feel that moved a nation still recovering from World War I, but jazz has older quite culturally diverse roots. Visitors to New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park will find themselves immersed in the people, places, and stories of jazz, and, of course, the music. 

Jazz has many roots but is most often associated with New Orleans, because the city was the largest in the South and it produced a number of outstanding musicians. Improvisation and a certain freedom characterize jazz and help to distinguish it from other musical styles. Jazz evolved from a tradition of brass bands, incorporating Spanish, West African, and Caribbean musical traditions as well as some uniquely American traditions like the blues and African American spirituals that emanated from southern culture. Surprising in a segregated society, jazz music was popular with musicians and audiences of a variety of racial backgrounds. 

As a city, New Orleans grew from a 1718 French settlement. With a strong Catholic tradition and many links to nations outside the United States, New Orleans was unlike most of the South between the 1700s and the Civil War. New Orleans was under the jurisdiction of first the French, then the Spanish, then returned to French control in 1801, before the United States bought it as part of the 1803 Louisiana Purchase. The beginnings of jazz emanated from cultural interactions in neighborhoods around the city. In informal street jams and clubs, among a vibrant immigrant community of French, Spanish, Germans, Italians, Haitians, Africans, and Asians, music was the king of social life. Building off the rhythms and melodies of African traditions and mixed with other influences, the music of New Orleans jazz came to sweep the nation as a popular American art form.

New Orleans offers an exciting mix of arts and cultures. Visitors to New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park can discover the city through this unique site dedicated to celebrating a truly American art form. Two visitor centers, one at 916 North Peters Street and the other at the former US Mint, now the Louisiana State Museum, at 400 Esplanade Avenue, provide information on the city. The visitor center at North Peters Street offers programs on jazz and musical performances.

Visitors can explore the city on their own or by following one of the self-guided walking tours listed on the park’s website to learn more about jazz. An audio tour focused on about 16 of the greatest jazz musicians is also available by cell phone for the area around the Algiers Ferry Landing. This ferry connects downtown New Orleans to Algiers, a formerly separate community that has been part of New Orleans since 1870. Musicians from Algiers have helped to keep jazz alive in New Orleans. Another phone-based tour highlights sites in and around the French Quarter. Other walking tours highlight Canal Street, the central Vieux Carré, Back O’ Town, and Storyville. These neighborhoods and areas all tell the story of jazz. Additional information on these and other parts of the city is available here.

Like each instrument in a band or each note in a tune, New Orleans has many neighborhoods, each with a distinct personality. Walking tours designed by the park provide the perfect way to explore the rich history of the city and learn more about jazz. Along the way are many buildings and other sites listed in the National Register of Historic Places that have played important roles in shaping jazz and jazz musicians.  The available walking tours include in-depth information on the following areas:

Canal Street, named for an unrealized canal, was the site of many recording studios for jazz. A commercial center during the 19th century, Canal Street long formed the boundary between the French and Creole areas of the city and American sectors. Today, all along Canal Street, visitors on a walking tour can see these cultural vestiges and historic jazz sites. 

The Vieux Carré or French Quarter is filled with fashionable homes and businesses, many of them nightclubs, lounges, and restaurants associated with jazz. Today, the Vieux Carré is approximately 80 blocks of historic downtown New Orleans grown from when it was laid out in 1721.  A walk through any of the streets of this historic district is a trip back to a younger America and beyond to the period of French and Spanish control.  East of Bourbon Street, for example, is historic Jackson Square, the site of the transfer of Louisiana from France to the United States on December 20, 1803 and the Cabildo, the Spanish administrative headquarters for the Louisiana Territory in the 1700s.

Around Lafayette Square and the Central Business District, visitors can stroll through a neighborhood that was established as the American portion of the city during the 1800s.  In the Lafayette Square area are jazz related fraternal organizations, hotels, studios, music schools, and restaurants. Close by is the Orpheum Theatre – a venue for jazz concerts with its own house jazz band. 

The Central Business District Back O’ Town neighborhood was once the hub of African American commercial and social life. Here Blacks, Jews, Italians, and Chinese performed and listened to music, particularly jazz. On South Rampart Street, close to Turner’s Hall, is the Eagle Saloon Building. Located in a popular shopping district for the city’s African American population, the saloon was one of many jazz venues in Back O’ Town. The Iroquois Theater, also on Rampart Street, was another popular place to hear early jazz.

Storyville was once a famous red-light district alive with the sounds of jazz. The closure of Storyville helped spread jazz throughout the country as musicians who played in the neighborhood left for other cities. The walking tour runs along Burgundy and North Rampart and highlights the clubs and dancehalls of the area.

From Preservation Hall at 726 St. Peter Street in the French Quarter – a popular location for nightly performances of New Orleans style jazz – to the neighborhoods of the city, those looking for the history, culture, and music of jazz will find it in New Orleans. Explore the roots of a musical style that shaped a nation by following the walking or audio tours offered by New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park or just by wandering through the city stopping to listen to the music.

New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park, a unit of the National Park System, is located in New Orleans, LA. Visitors may begin exploring the history of jazz from either of two locations. The main visitor center for the park is located at 916 North Peters St. Information on what to see and do in the park is also available from an additional Park Service visitor station located within the former United States Mint. Operated as a branch of the Louisiana State Museum, the Mint is located at 400 Esplanade Ave. and is open from 10:00am to 4:30pm Tuesday through Sunday. The visitor center on North Peters St. is open 9:00am to 5:00pm Tuesday through Sunday and is closed on Christmas and Mardi Gras. For more information, visit the National Park Service New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park website or call 504-589-4841. An overview of the walking tours may be found here. Cell phone based tours are also available for Algiers and the French Quarter.

The US Mint, the Vieux Carré Historic DistrictJackson Square, the Cabildo, and Gallier Hall have been designated National Historic Landmarks. Click here for National Register of Historic Places registration files for the US Mint (text and photos).

Many of the sites above have been documented by the National Park Service’s Historic American Buildings Survey.
The Vieux Carré is also the subject of an online lesson plan, The Vieux Carré: A Creole Neighborhood in New Orleans. The lesson plan has been produced by the National Park Service’s Teaching with Historic Places program, which offers a series of online classroom-ready lesson plans on registered historic places.

Last updated: August 4, 2017