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Louis_Armstrong | © WikiCommons

5 Music Genres That Define New Orleans

Picture of Rebeca Trejo
Updated: 15 September 2016
New Orleans’ pivotal music history derives from a multicultural melting pot of unique rhythms and rhymes. Founded in 1718, the city, a platform where many of the world’s most influential musical beats have taken root, has successfully melded together every tradition and ethnicity that has set foot in the port city. It’s now responsible for birthing – or contributing to the development of – seminal music styles that have gone far beyond it’s borders, becoming world-famous melodies. Ranging from modern to traditional, NOLA’s long-established musical significance is now a harmony epicenter where global industry experts continue to look for inspiration.

From Congo drumming to European horns, here are some of the instruments and sounds used to create the Crescent City’s unmatchable musical legacy.


Developed at the start of the 20th century, Jazz, also known as Dixieland, is a groundbreaking music genre that originated from New Orleans’ African American communities. Hailed as one of America’s original art forms, Jazz’s early memories begin with Papa Jack Laine’s musical formation, where he enlisted hundreds of city musicians from diverse ethnic groups and social statuses. Following his formation came the emergence of artists like Buddy Bolden and Bunk Johnson as well as members of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, who were all instrumental in forming the world-famous genre we know and love today.

Even though the term “jazz” became common during the 1910’s when musicians, including Freddie Keppard, Jelly Roll Morton, King Oliver and Kid Ory, exemplified the music style, it’s backbone comes from early music influences such as rural blues, ragtime, and marching bands free spirited improvisation. Following its early success, second-generation artist like cornetist and trumpeter, Louis Armstrong, clarinets and saxophonist, Sydney Bechet, and pianist Jelly Roll Morton, took Jazz to another level and introduced it around the world.

Today, this musical form, which according to considerable research get its name from a slang term dating back to 1860 meaning “energy,” singers like Harry Connick, Jr. (who has ten number one U.S. jazz albums) continues to represent the genre while incorporating traditional jazz elements into the new world music. Women, too, such as Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington, Ethel Waters, Betty Carter, and Anita O’day became musical icons of the genre for their jazz singing.


Birthed in the Mississippi Delta just upriver from New Orleans, Blues is a heart-felt music form that has deep roots in American – particularly African-American – history. Communicating genuine emotion more than any other music form, this deep-south genre is characterized by call-and-response patters, the blues scales, and specific chord progressions, as well as cathartic lyrics, bass lines and visceral instrumentation. Tracing back to the music of Africa, which frequently relies on percussion instruments of every variety, Blues, which gets its name from “blue devils,” meaning melancholy and sadness, originated on Southern platations in the 19th century, often dated to after the ending of slavery and the emergence of juke joints. Notable 1920s blues pioneers, who took the genre and made it their own, include Son House, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Lead Belly, Charley Patton and Robert Johnson.


Rhythm and blues, or R&B, is a WWII-birthed music genre that took root in the 1940s. It became known during the time jazz-based music had become popular – the period from the end of the First World War until the start of the 1929 Depression is known as the “Jazz Age”. Its dynamic synthesized traditional blues with various African American mainstream acts of the time. This musical genre, which now holds national global hits, became a cultural hit with path-breaking records by artists such as Fats Domino, Lloyd Price, Smiley Lewis, Professor Longhair, Irma Thomas, and Frankie Ford, among others. Experiencing new direction brought forward by 1970s artist like Dr. John and the Neville Brothers, R&B developed new qualities, and today, the style that contributed to the development of rock & roll is kept alive by New Orleans rap star Lil Wayne.


Zydeco, a music genre created by Southwest Louisiana’s Black Creoles (a group of people of mixed African, Afro-Caribbean, Native American and European descent) was birthed at Saturday-night gatherings where families and friends gathered to dance around a room pulsing with accordion-driven beats. Originated in Opelousas, Louisiana and emerged from St. Landry Parish pioneers, this cross-fertilization of musical styles served as a way for rural southerners to expressed the hardships of everyday life in the South with grace, style and artistry. While early Zydeco masters date back to artists like Clifton Chenier, often hailed as the “King of Zydeco,” other influential voices include Grammy Award winners Rockin’ Sidney Simien, Buckwheat Zydeco, and Rockin’ Dopsie as well as Goldman Thibodeaux, Beau Jocque, and Rosie Ledet.


Bounce, a music genre defined by a tempo ranging from 95 to 105 beats per minute, heavy brass band beats, and Mardi Gracias Indian chants call-and-response routines, is a southern roots music manifestation connected to Louisiana’s hip-hop history. The genre, which traces back to 1991 when the efforts of rappers and DJs working in small nightclubs and block parties brought to life New Orleans’ own brand of hip-hop, popularized at a club called Ghost Town by MC T. Tucke, has gone on to become one of NOLA’s most exciting and influential musical trends in recent history. Bounce came to dominate the groove scene during the early 1990s with records like Juvenille’s “Do the Jubilee All,” and has been carried to present time by rappers such as Big Freedia, Sissy Nobby, and Vockah Redu.

By Rebeca Trejo