The French Quarter is alive with music this weekend as the 30th annual French Quarter Festival kicks into high gear.
Music has been central to the identity of New Orleans from the earliest years of the city's founding, and a casual stroll through the streets of the French Quarter will bring you past centuries of tangible music history.
While you're down in the Quarter for the Festival, or any time at all, make sure you don't miss these landmarks.
J&M Recording Studio
840 North Rampart St. (corner of Dumaine)
Unless you’re doing a load of laundry at the Clothes Spin, it’s easy to miss this musical landmark. The site was once home to a music shop, and in the back, Cosimo Matassa’s legendary J&M Recording Studio. From 1945 to 1955, Matassa engineered and produced some of the greatest New Orleans recordings of all time; including Fats Domino’s “The Fat Man,” Dave Bartholomew’s “My Ding-a-Ling,” Lloyd Price’s “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” and Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti.” 840 North Rampart was named a historic landmark by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in 2010.
726 St. Peter St.
No trip to New Orleans is complete without a stop at this renowned musical establishment. Preservation Hall was officially founded in 1961 to celebrate and preserve traditional jazz in the city, in a building that itself dates back to 1750. It is home to the Preservation Jazz Band, which began touring in 1963, and the Preservation Hall Foundation, which supports new generations of jazz musicians.
Located just north of the French Quarter, along Basin Street from Iberville to St. Louis, Storyville was New Orleans’ red-light district from 1897 until 1917, when it was shut down on order of the Secretary of the Navy during a nationwide crackdown on vice districts in Navy towns during World War I. Musicians played an integral role in the district, providing entertainment to the customers at brothels and performing in clubs throughout the area. Early jazz musicians who performed in Storyville include Jelly Roll Morton, Buddy Bolden, Louis Armstrong, Ann Cook and Joe “King” Oliver. While most of the original structures have been torn down, a few remain, albeit by other names.
237 Basin St: The first floor of Lulu White’s Saloon is now the Basin Supermarket Seafood and Grill. “Mahogany Hall Stomp,” performed by Louis Armstrong, was inspired by Lulu White’s brothel, which once stood at 235 Basin St.
1214 Bienville St.: Frank Early’s My Place Saloon, which is now the New Image Supermarket.
As the plaque in front notes, in 1912 the Italian Hall Association purchased 1020 Esplanade to house the Unione Italiana, an organization which served to culturally support New Orleans’ Italian community. With roots in various benevolent societies, it’s no surprise that music was a central element to the Unione Italiana, which housed several society bands. Most historically notable is the Jones & Collins Astoria Hot Eight jazz band, which recorded here in 1929. Not only was it the band’s first recording, but it is said to be the first racially integrated recording made in New Orleans.
The French Opera House
Bourbon St. (corner of Toulouse)
When you pass the Four Points by Sheraton Hotel on Bourbon Street, imagine a time of house drawn carriages, high society and ball gowns. This is the site where the grandiose French Opera House, built in 1859, once staged the greatest European operas in a hall that held nearly 2,000 people. Although the building was destroyed in a devastating fire in 1919, opera fans in the city can still enjoy regular performances by the New Orleans Opera Association.
Steamboat Natchez Calliope
Simply sit along the Mississippi River in the French Quarter to catch the nostalgic sounds of the calliope, a steam-powered organ invented in the 19th century, which sits atop the Steamboat Natchez. The late Danny Barker reflects on hearing the legendary Fate Marable play the calliope back in the early 20th century: “You could hear it all over the city distinctly, as far as, probably, the lakefront. He was probably one of the greatest calliope players of all times… It was a real haunting sound to hear in the evening. That was before the city got so commercial and electrified with electric wires, and had the noise of the trucks. You could hear it real plain.”
The Steamboat Natchez offers calliope performances at 10:45 a.m. and 1:45 a.m
One of the Many Possible Houses of the Rising Sun
Like the origins of the song that bears its name, the historical location of the House of the Rising Sun is unclear. While many establishments claim to have inspired the song, most historians believe the “house in New Orleans” didn’t exist at all, or was a composite of many places. But for the sake of curiosity, why not visit two of the alleged spots in the French Quarter:
535-537 Conti St.: once a hotel called the Rising Sun.
826-830 St. Louis Street: the alleged site of Madame Marianne LeSoleil Levant’s brothel in the 19th Century
Cross North Rampart and head to the southern corner of Armstrong Park to visit Congo Square, one of the most significant places in the history of American music. In the 18th century, slaves were allowed to congregate, socialize, play music and dance in the square on Sundays. From that point on, Congo Square became a melting pot of sounds, drawing inspiration from West Africa, the Caribbean and parts of Europe. Today it is the site of the New World Rhythms Festival, and a common gathering spot for several Mardi Gras Indian tribes.
Louis Armstrong Park
Who says New Orleans isn’t a country town? In October 1952, Hank Williams exchanged vows with his second wife, Billie Jean Jones, in two back-to-back staged ceremonies at New Orleans’ Municipal Auditorium. Tragically, just three months later Hank Williams would pass away in the backseat of his Cadillac on his way to a performance. The Municipal Auditorium has remained closed since Hurricane Katrina.
Bob Dylan’s New Orleans
In 1964, Bob Dylan set out on a twenty-day trip across the country in an effort to find inspiration outside the folk-music scene. In the middle of the trip, he and his friends stopped in New Orleans during Mardi Gras. In his book No Direction Home:The Life and Music of Bob Dylan, Robert Shelton mentions a few of the joints Dylan hit during this trip:
La Casa de los Marinos at 601 Decatur: a sailors’ bar where Café Maspero now stands.
Wanda’s Seven Seas Restaurant on Iberville.
The corner of Iberville and Canal: to catch the Comus parade
In Chronicles, Vol. 1, Bob Dylan writes, “There are a lot of places I like, but I like New Orleans better. There’s a thousand different angles at any moment. At any time you could run into a ritual honoring some vaguely known queen.”
1820 Tchoupitoulas Street
It’s a bit outside the French Quarter, but The Warehouse is one of the seminal music joints of the 20th Century. And it’s reason the Grateful Dead got “busted, down on Bourbon Street”. Deadheads know the tale of the infamous Bourbon Street drug bust through the band’s song “Truckin’.” While we’ll never know if they were “set up like a bowling pin,” we do know they were in New Orleans to play a show at the Warehouse, a massive music club that functioned from 1970 to 1982. Jim Morrison played his final show with the Doors at this venue on December 12, 1970. Other artists who performed here included Fleetwood Mac, the Clash, Led Zeppelin, Joe Cocker, the Allman Brothers and Talking Heads.
Although the building no longer exists, some of the original bricks were integrated into the floor of the back room at Le Bon Temps Roulé.