Tips for Live Music in New Orleans
This article provides ten ways to get the best musical experience out of your time in New Orleans, including free options. Music is New Orleans’ greatest gift to the world, and the city is in a golden age in terms of both quantity and quality. We’ll cover ways to find the best music in and out of the French Quarter, indoor and outdoor, recorded and live, traditional and innovative. The video below is for our New Orleans Music, Art and More Tour, a tour that provides participants tips and inside knowledge of New Orleans music and art scenes as well as historical context.
Because we have so much live music, a calendar can be a huge help. WWOZ, our local listener-supported heritage station, can be a great planning tool. The station provides a comprehensive daily schedule of local live music called the WWOZ Livewire, announced on air every odd hour and also listed online. It’s most useful for those who already are somewhat familiar with the local music scene and can recognize the names of bands and venues, but if it’s your first time, the app version can be a huge help. It provides a map showing where music is happening near you and also allows you to filter the list by style – providing a list of jazz, blues, funk, zydeco, or whatever else tickles your fancy. At the time of writing, this app is only available on Apple devices.
Need a soundtrack for your trip planning? You don’t have to be in New Orleans to experience good local music. Our local listener-supported, commercial-free radio station, WWOZ, can be streamed from anywhere at WWOZ.org. (While you’re in town, you can tune in at 90.7 FM.) WWOZ is a great way to get a sense for the variety of local music – you’ll hear plenty of jazz, but they host shows dedicated to blues, Celtic and Latin music, and current artists who aren’t easy to categorize.
(Bourbon Street music venues)
Bourbon Street is legendary and a destination for most New Orleans visitors and music is a part of its story. For a long time, that meant local traditional jazz; while you’ll still find some of that, these days the fixtures are karaoke and cover bands, mostly playing classic rock from Jimmy Buffett to Journey. There are always a few reliably jazzy spots – the Jazz Playhouse and Fritzel’s Jazz Pub in particular, for more loungy and raucous vibes respectively – and more locally-rooted music venues like Preservation Hall, 21st Amendment, or the Bombay Club are often just a block or so away from one another. If you’re here for nightlife and bar hopping with local music as a side dish, Bourbon Street can fit the bill.
Fritzel’s Jazz Pub
(Frenchmen Street music venues)
Frenchmen Street, located in the Marigny neighborhood, has the highest concentration of local-flavored music in town. Concentrated into a three-block strip just outside the French Quarter, Frenchmen Street is lively every night of the week, picking up steam as early as mid-afternoon on weekends, and has no mandatory closing times. Because it offers so many choices in a compact space, it’s easy to go to Frenchmen Street without a plan and make spontaneous choices about where to go based on what you hear. Many Frenchmen Street venues serve food in addition to drinks and music, so it can be a destination for dinner as well as nightlife – and these particular venues are often friendly to an under-21 crowd until 9 or 10 in the evening. While some of these bars have covers, many just have a one-drink minimum, especially on weeknights. A note on budgeting: tipping is a big part of music culture in New Orleans, and often audience tips constitute most or all of a band’s compensation for their time, especially if there’s no cover.
Highlights on Frenchmen Street include:
Snug Harbor, a sit-down ticketed theater that is home to local and touring heavyweights of traditional and modern jazz (such as a weekly show by Ellis Marsalis), and which also includes a restaurant separate from the music space. Shows are usually at 8 and 10 and often sell out, so reserving in advance is a good idea.
The Spotted Cat, a small iconic bar with as many as five bands a day, including jazz, swing, and blues, starting as early as 2:00 pm and continuing until 2:00 am.
DBA, a bar with a broad selection of beer and spirits, plus a high-caliber eclectic local music schedule, usually with a cover on weekends.
Read our article on 12 Places to Hear Live Music on Frenchmen Street (http://www.freetoursbyfoot.com/frenchmen-street-new-orleans/)
Street performance has a long history in New Orleans, and many of the city’s greatest musicians cut their teeth in the outdoors. Typically, this scene is concentrated in the French Quarter – Jackson Square, Royal Street, and to a lesser degree Bourbon Street – but you’ll also find some on Frenchmen Street. You’ll hear a mix of traditional jazz, jam bands, African instruments, brass bands, cover bands, singer/songwriters, solo violinists and more. Prime times are spring and fall, Thursdays through Sundays, late morning to early evening.
For a self-guided tour of street music, try starting in Jackson Square and then walking up Royal Street toward Canal; besides the music, you’ll find plenty of cafes, shops, and restaurants along the way. Bear in mind that most street musicians treat what they do as a career, but are not compensated by the city, they receive only what passerby leave for them. For this reason, it’s worth thinking of street music as an affordable option rather than a free one, especially if you want to take photos or video of the performers. Many are also selling CDs if you want to bring the memory home with you.
A daytime tour of the French Quarter is also a great way to encounter some street music alongside some history and sightseeing, and we offer several name-your-own-price French Quarter tours per day. We encounter and interact with street music performers on most of our tours.
Here is a video of one of our greatest street music ambassadors, Doreen Ketchens, who has been playing with her family in the French Quarter since 1987. You can usually find them weekend daytimes at Royal and St. Peter, just outside Jackson Square.
Join Free Tours by Foot for a walk through the Tremé, French Quarter, and Marigny neighborhoods as we explore the creative history and culture of New Orleans, enhanced with audio and visuals throughout. From jazz, funk, bounce, and blues to gospel masses to jazz funerals, from Southern Gothic literature to rap, from fine art galleries to street art, New Orleans brings the expressive side out of locals and visitors alike – whether as a career, or just one day a year. Our musicians, artists, and writers all range from world-famous to well-kept secrets, but all of them share New Orleans as a muse – and their lives and stories are often as fascinating as their work.
On this tour, we’ll make our way from the birthplace of jazz to the definitive strip of music clubs in New Orleans today. We’ll pass the homes and haunts of great writers, see art hung from fences and gallery walls, and walk the paths of the greatest free show in the world, Mardi Gras. Besides sharing the art of live storytelling, your guide will help you plan what music and cultural events to attend while you’re in town.
Included on the tour:
- Monuments to musicians and traditions in Louis Armstrong Park
- Congo Square, colonial home of African music and dance
- Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts
- Bourbon Street music clubs past and present
- Street performance in Jackson Square and Royal Street
- The Presbytère, home of the Louisiana State Museum’s Mardi Gras collection
- Royal Street art galleries
- Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carre
- Former homes of writers William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, and Francis Parkinson Keyes
- The Old U.S. Mint, home of a preeminent Louisiana folk art collection
- Street art in Faubourg Marigny
- Frenchmen Street, the most concentrated district for local music
- And an audio survey of what’s going on in the city while you’re here
Where: Mr. Gregory’s Coffee Shop 806 N. Rampart St.
DURATION: 2 hours, 1 mile in length
When: 2:30 pm Friday and Saturday
Cost: This tour is free to take, and you get to decide what, if anything, the tour was worth when it’s done. A name-your-own-price tour is a tour for anyone’s budget.
Rollicking, danceable jazz, called Dixieland jazz or traditional jazz, is New Orleans’ historic signature sound, and we still take great pride in it today. Chances are that any daytime walk down Royal Street or nighttime stroll on Frenchmen will bring you in hearing of a trad jazz band. Only a few venues specialize solely in Dixieland jazz, the best known of which is Preservation Hall, a nightly destination for short sets presented by their iconic house band (see our review of Preservation Hall here). For a longer set paired with dinner, Palm Court Jazz Cafe can be a good choice, and during the day, Cafe Beignet, in Musical Legends Park on Bourbon Street, hosts a traditional jazz band to entertain those taking a break from walking the famous bar strip. Finally, if a steamboat ride on the Mississippi doesn’t sound appealing enough by itself, the Steamboat Natchez sweetens the deal by hosting the Dukes of Dixieland on board.
Preservation Hall Band
Since Commander’s Palace coined the tradition in 1973, jazz brunch has been a favorite way to start a late unrepentant morning in New Orleans, and it’s as much of a special occasion for locals as for visitors. Mostly, jazz brunch is a weekend institution, but the Court of Two Sisters in the French Quarter is known as the only daily jazz brunch in the city, making this tradition available to mid-week work travelers – or just anyone willing to treat a Tuesday night like a Saturday.
A few strong choices for jazz brunch include:
- Commander’s Palace – Garden District institution and originator of jazz brunch, serving elevated Creole cuisine. Dress code. Saturday and Sunday.
- Antoine’s or Arnaud’s – comparable to Commander’s, but both located in the French Quarter. Saturday and Sunday.
- Court of Two Sisters – jazz brunch seven days a week in a restaurant with a beautiful courtyard in the French Quarter.
Atchafalaya – an excellent, more affordable/casual modern Cajun/Creole restaurant near the Garden District, serving brunch Thursday through Monday, with music Saturday and Sunday.
- Backroom at Buffa’s – a very casual choice in the Marigny, with an excellent music calendar day and night and throughout the week. Sunday only.
- House of Blues Gospel Brunch – not a jazz brunch, but a way to combine breakfast with another beloved local genre of music. If it’s a choice between getting brunch and going to church, this is your way to do both. Sunday only.
SECOND LINE PARADES
A second line – a parade on foot, led by a band – is New Orleans’ way of commemorating any kind of important event, from funerals to weddings. For much of the year, there’s a good chance you’ll spot one by chance in the French Quarter – they’re a popular component of destination weddings – but some are pre-planned, publicized annual events that participants prepare for all year. Part parade, part festival, these second lines are mobile parties thrown by social clubs, with costumes, food vendors, bar stops, and a brass band leading the way. They occur most Sunday afternoons throughout the year, with the exception of summer; WWOZ provides details on each week’s second line at https://www.wwoz.org/programs/inthestreet.
At the end of your trip, there’s no better way to preserve the memory than bringing your new favorite band home with you – or you might find a great album for a music-loving friend. If so, don’t miss Louisiana Music Factory on Frenchmen Street – they’ve got a great selection with an emphasis on Louisiana artists, including a substantial collection of new and vintage vinyl, all in the midst of Frenchmen Street’s live performance corridor (they even offer live performances). Euclid Records in the Bywater is a local legend, and if you’re staying uptown, Peaches Records on Magazine also has a respectable local music section.
Street music may not be entirely free, but there are often genuinely free options. The Old US Mint, part of the Louisiana State Museum system, and St. Louis Cathedral in Jackson Square both host free concerts. Just outside the French Quarter in the Treme neighborhood, you can find Armstrong Park, which not only hosts a free Jazz in the Park festival from 4-8 pm every Thursday in the fall and spring, but also is the home of Congo Square, a congregating site for African drummers, who casually gather to play together most Sunday afternoons, preserving a centuries-old tradition. Lastly, a festival is not a festival in New Orleans without live music, and many of our fests have no admission fee. The aforementioned WWOZ Livewire can be helpful in figuring out what festivals may be happening while you’re here, or you can consult local publications like the Gambit Weekly.
We have more festivals in south Louisiana than there are days of the year. If you’ve got a hankering to pay us a visit, but you’re not sure when is the best time, knowing your festival options can make the choice easier – or harder, but in a good way. Spring and fall are the prime festival seasons (and the best times of year to be outside in general). Music lovers worldwide make the pilgrimage to the Jazz and Heritage Festival (Jazz Fest), which takes place the last weekend of April and the first weekend of May each year and combines a few out-of-town headliners with the cream of the local crop. If Jazz Fest prices are daunting, consider French Quarter Fest – a weekend of food and music spread across the French Quarter in early April with no admission fee. Beyond these, there’s a fest for just about every locally farmed or fished ingredient, plus festivals for neighborhoods, music genres, colors – we’ll take any excuse. Bear in mind that while admission is often free, they’ll get you on food and drink prices.