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Ana Jaks / © Culture Trip
Ana Jaks / © Culture Trip
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Jazz Pioneers Who Call New Orleans Home

Picture of Kyla Bernberg
Updated: 9 February 2018
From Lil’ Wayne to Louis Armstrong, New Orleans is the home of numerous outstanding musicians. The soulful city has shaped the music industry in ample ways, birthing musical genres and musical geniuses alike. These seven icons arose from a jazzy city, and though some of the names may be unfamiliar, they left a large footprint on the musical genres of jazz, rhythm and blues, rock and roll, and New Orleans funk.

Jelly Roll Morton

Jelly Roll Morton, otherwise known as Ferdinand Lamothe, took the street sounds of New Orleans in the early 1900s and brought it to the rest of the nation. His music embodied the sounds of Hot Jazz; an upbeat, frolicking sound that made people move. Jelly Roll left his hometown, New Orleans, as a teenager and made money as a comedian, pimp, musician, and gambler. Jelly Roll Morton’s Original Jelly Blues, published in 1915, is the first published work of the jazz genre. In the wake of the 1930s and the Great Depression, Mr. Morton left the limelight. People started listening to smooth jazz, and Jelly Roll kept to his New Orleans sounds. In 1941, he passed away, out of the music scene for the most part. Today, Jelly Roll Morton is recognized as one of the greatest influences of modern jazz. In 1998, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. For all the jazz lovers out there, give this man a listen and hear the early sounds of New Orleans.

Louis Armstrong

Louis Armstrong, a man with incredible vocal sounds and technical trumpet skills, is arguably the greatest jazz musician of all time. Armstrong was born in 1901 in New Orleans, in a rough part of town and into a poor family. However, the city’s music had a great influence on him. Armstrong took New Orleans jazz, shaped it and defined it, with his huge voice and friendly attitude. Louis was not only a jazz icon, he brought swing to the world, and became the most famous musician in the United States. In 1963, Armstrong kicked the Beatles off the charts with his hit ‘Hello Dolly.’ In 1968, he made blue skies and white clouds linger with his most famous song ‘What a Wonderful World.’ In 1971, Armstrong died in New York City due to poor health. Today, Louis Armstrong is the one of the most essential and influential figures in music history. As Louis Armstrong put it himself, ‘If it hadn’t been for jazz, there wouldn’t be no rock and roll.’

Professor Longhair

Henry Roeland Byrd, otherwise known as Professor Longhair, exemplifies the true New Orleans funky piano style. His hand slides and glides to create rhythms which sound like how the city feels. Born in 1918 outside of New Orleans, Professor Longhair moved to the city at the age of two, where he was influenced by the sounds of early jazz and the city’s ambiance. Professor Longhair died in 1980, but inspired many New Orleans musicians, such as Fats Domino, Dr. John, and Allen Toussaint. He created a piano style that has yet to leave the city. A year after Professor Longhair’s death, he was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame, and in 1992 he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Long Live Longhair!

Fats Domino

Antoine ‘Fats’ Domino mastered the transitional music from rhythm and blues to rock and roll. Born in New Orleans in 1928, this pianist, singer, and songwriter had a huge impact on American music throughout the 1950s. In fact, Domino sold more records than any rock and roll musician in the ’50s besides Elvis Presley. However, Domino didn’t intend to play rock and roll music; he was just playing the music he knew how to play, the music that came from New Orleans: jazz piano, blues lyrics, rhythm, etc. Domino had numerous hits including, ‘Ain’t That A Shame‘ and ‘Blueberry Hill.’ He took the sounds of New Orleans and transformed it into his style. This rhythm and blues boy had a huge influence on rock and roll. In 1986, Fats Domino was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Today, Fats Domino is still alive at age 88; ain’t that a shame he’s no longer making music.

James Booker

James Booker, a one-eyed piano wizard, with a sweet, singin’ blues voice. Born in New Orleans in 1939, Booker was encouraged throughout his childhood to play music. By the time James Booker was in his pre-teens, he was playing in clubs throughout New Orleans. His unique style captured audiences rapidly, not only in the city, but throughout the nation. At the height of his career, Booker worked with musicians such as B.B. King, Fats Domino, Aretha Franklin, Ringo Starr, and The Doobie Brothers. Booker was a true character, a genius, and unfortunately a drug addict. His addiction eventually not only affected his career, but brought upon him poor health. In 1983, James Booker died waiting to be seen in the ER. Booker is one of the most under-recognized musicians of New Orleans, as he was a piano player capable of anything, a musical magician. His life span was too short, but the music he left behind is everlasting.

Dr. John

Dr. John, otherwise known as Malcolm Rebennack, Jr., is the master of funk. Born in New Orleans in 1941, Rebennack began playing music at a young age. He inspired people such as Fats Domino, Professor Longhair, and the culture of the city itself. Rebennack created the persona of Dr. John and the Night Tripper, a voodoo sorcerer and healer, at the start of his musical career. Voodoo is an African-based spiritual folkway brought to New Orleans during the Atlantic slave trade. Dr. John is an emblem of the city, as his music represents the soul and uniqueness of New Orleans. Today, he is still involved in the music scene and plays frequently. Dr. John has played with musicians such as Van Morrison, Canned Heat, Frank Zappa, and The Rolling Stones. In 2011, Dr. John was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Listening to Dr. John is diving into the soul and history of New Orleans, in the funkiest way possible.

Allen Toussaint

Allen Toussaint may be an unfamiliar name, but the songs he wrote are notorious. Born in New Orleans in 1938, Allen Toussaint began his career as a songwriter. He wrote a national number one hit ‘Mother In Law‘ by Ernie K-Doe in 1961 and The Rolling Stones’ ‘Fortune Teller.’ His musical influence shaped the New Orleans sound of the ’60s and carried it throughout the rest of the country. His solo career combines soul-touching piano and heartwarming lyrics. Toussaint has worked with Elvis Costello, The Band, Bonnie Raitt, and other well-known musicians. His character was humble, and his talent was groundbreaking. In 1998, Allen Toussaint was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Unfortunately, on November 10, 2015, Allen Toussaint passed away. The city came together and held a second-line parade for him, to celebrate the life of another New Orleans musical legend.