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It’s pretty much impossible to come up with a comprehensive list of all the talented musicians who have called New Orleans (a.k.a. the birthplace of jazz) home over the years. Natives and transplants have been drawn to its music scene for centuries, and even those who aren’t musically inclined tend to fall in love with it. Here are 10 prominent musicians of the past and present you should know about, who perform in a variety of genres ranging from jazz to funk to rock ‘n’ roll and everything in between.
From the 1920s until his death in the 1960s, Louis Armstrong was an acclaimed trumpeter and one of the most influential jazz musicians of all time. Given the nickname “Satchmo,” the artist was characterized by his instantly recognizable, gravelly voice and his ability to improvise on the spot. Today, the city continues to honor him with an eponymous park, which happens to be the site of numerous music festivals and events along with a three-day festival in August held around his birthday. Even the airport, where visitors are often greeted by jazz over the loudspeakers, if not a live band, is named after him.
Allen Toussaint was a much-beloved musical icon and popular member of the community who was frequently spotted around town in one of his many classic cars, waving to passersby. The prominent musician, songwriter, arranger and producer’s influential career began in the 1950s. Over the years, he recorded with both local artists and international superstars, including the Rolling Stones and The Who. Music remained his passion up until his death, where he died on tour at the age of 77 in Spain. Popular songs he wrote, recorded and arranged include his own “Southern Nights” (sung by Toussaint himself), “Ooh Poo Pah Doo” (Jessie Hill), “Lady Marmalade” (Patti Labelle) and hundreds more.
One of New Orleans’ most popular modern acts, Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews has been playing music his whole life and is a headlining act at many local music festivals. He grew up in the Treme neighborhood, where music is a way of life. A Grammy nominee, he remains a fixture on the local scene and is also recognized internationally. His style incorporates a blend of funk, rock, jazz, hip-hop and soul to create a unique sound that pays tributes to many of the city’s icons of the past with a nod toward the future.
Commonly referred to as the “Soul Queen of New Orleans,” Irma Thomas is a national treasure who continues to dazzle audiences well into her 70s. Often compared to Aretha Franklin and Etta James, she remains a beloved local figure who frequently headlines festivals and makes annual appearances at the renowned Jazz and Heritage Festival (a.k.a. Jazz Fest).
Ernie K-Doe (born Ernest Kador Jr.) made one of the biggest hits to come out of New Orleans: “Mother-in-Law” (written by Allen Toussaint), which was a No. 1 Billboard hit in 1961. He was known for being a flamboyant performer who wore brightly colored clothing, including a bright pink tuxedo and gold cape tailored by his wife, Antoinette. He opened the Mother-in-Law Lounge in 1994, where he performed until his death in 2001. He also hosted a radio show. Today his club is still a destination for locals and visitors who love live music; his wife, Antoinette, operated the club until her death in 2009. Now it’s run by trumpeter Kermit Ruffins.
The legendary funk band formed in 1965 by Zigaboo Modeliste, George Porter Jr., Leo Nocentelli and Art Neville. They are considered to be among the originators of funk, and though they officially disbanded in 1977, their work continues to influence many other artists to this day. This especially applies to the spin-off the Funky Meters (which features Art Neville), the Neville Brothers (with Charles, Aaron and Cyril Neville), Dumpstaphunk (with grandson Ivan) and Charmaine Neville, a solo artist who carries on the legacy of her father Charles.
Though their official home is in the eponymous music venue in the French Quarter, Preservation Hall Jazz Band has made its way around the world to share the traditional jazz music of New Orleans. Though they respect the traditions of the past, they also collaborate with modern artists who play in a variety of genres (Jim James of My Morning Jacket, Dave Grohl and the Foo Fighters, and Neko Case are among just a few). The band is a testament to New Orleans’ reverence for tradition as well as its acceptance of new collaborations and ideas.
Trumpeter Kermit Ruffins got a taste of fame when he starred as himself in the hit HBO series Treme, but the reality is that he had been a local favorite for years. One of his biggest influences is Louis Armstrong, and he currently runs the music venue Kermit’s Mother-in-Law Lounge, which was once owned by Antoinette K-Doe, widow of the famous Ernie. Ruffins continues to be a fixture at both intimate local clubs and major festivals.
When Fats Domino passed away in 2017, the city celebrated his life with a massive second-line parade, during which thousands of people and many of his collaborators showed up outside of his house in the Lower Ninth Ward to pay their respects. In the 1950s he became known for his catchy rock and R&B hits, including “Ain’t That a Shame” and “Blueberry Hill.” He is considered to be a pioneer of rock and roll music; between 1955 and 1960 he had 11 Top 10 hits and over the course of his lifetime, he sold more than 65 million records.
Dr. John (an alias for Mac Rebennack) is known for his unique blend of blues, rock, pop, jazz and boogie-woogie. Eccentric and theatrical, he’s a bit of a musical witch doctor who incorporates Mardi Gras costumes and voodoo ceremonies inspired by his home state. The release of his album Gris Gris in the 1960s put him on a national track to fame, and since then he has recorded more than 20 albums. His popular hit “Right Place, Wrong Time” remains a fan favorite.