The birthplace of jazz, New Orleans has a plethora of pioneers who call the soulful city home. From Lil Wayne to Louis Armstrong, New Orleans can lay claim to numerous outstanding artists. The soulful city has shaped music history in ample ways, birthing genres and geniuses alike.
These seven icons arose from The Big Easy, and while some of the names may not read as familiar today, they left a large footprint on the musical genres of jazz, rhythm and blues, rock and roll, and New Orleans funk. We explain why below.
Jelly Roll Morton, the stage name of the pianist 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 Dixieland jazz: an upbeat, frolicking sound that made people move. Morton left his hometown, New Orleans, as a teenager and made money as a comedian, pimp (as legend would have it), musician and gambler. Morton’s ‘Original Jelly Roll Blues,’ published in 1915, is the first published jazz composition. Morton was jazz’s first great composer, penning arrangements in a genre known for its extemporaneous style. In the wake of the 1930s and the Great Depression, Morton left the limelight. People started listening to swing jazz while Morton kept to his New Orleans sound, which was considered passé. In 1941, he died, succumbing to a stab wound that wasn’t properly treated because of the color of his skin. Today, Morton is recognized as one of the greatest influences on modern jazz. In 1998, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, where Atlantic Records co-founder Ahmet Ertegun remarked, “If anybody invented jazz, it was Jelly Roll Morton.”
“You can’t play anything on a horn that Louis hasn’t played,” Miles Davis said in 1958 – a cosign akin to Mozart complimenting Beethoven. Louis Armstrong was possessed by a distinctively scratchy baritone and preternatural skill on the cornet and trumpet, which marked him as perhaps 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. Armstrong was not only a jazz icon, he brought swing to the world and became the most famous musician in the United States. In 1964, Armstrong dethroned The Beatles’ No. 1 spot on the Billboard chart, after their historic streak of three No. 1 hits in a row over 14 consecutive weeks, with his hit ‘Hello Dolly.’ In 1967, he made blue skies and white clouds linger with his most famous song, ‘What a Wonderful World,’ a ballad that became Armstrong’s signature. In 1971, he died in New York City a month before his 70th birthday due to poor health. Today, Armstrong is the one of the most essential and influential figures in music history. As Armstrong put it himself, “If it hadn’t been for jazz, there wouldn’t be no rock and roll.”
Henry Roeland Byrd, otherwise known as Professor Longhair, exemplifies the true New Orleans funky piano style, inspired by rhythms popular in traditional Afro-Cuban and Afro-Caribbean music. His hand slides and glides to create a unique lineage between rock, R&B and jazz. 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 hodgepodge blend of cultures. In 1949, he debuted the song he’s most remembered for, ‘Go to Mardi Gras,’ an upbeat romp that encourages visitors to “stroll in New Orleans…to go see the Mardi Gras.” It’s still popular to this day during Carnival season. Professor Longhair died in his sleep in 1980, but inspired many New Orleans musicians, such as Fats Domino, Dr. John and Allen Toussaint, during his pivotal career. 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.
Antoine “Fats” Domino Jr. was a pianist and songwriter whose boogie-woogie music bridged R&B and rock and roll. Born in New Orleans in 1928, his first language was Louisiana Creole, and at around 10 years old he learned the instrument on which he made his name from his jazz guitarist brother-in-law. In the 1950s, 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 and rhythm. A few of Domino’s biggest hits include ‘Ain’t That A Shame’ and ‘Blueberry Hill.’ His music took traditional blues and added saxophones, bass, electric guitar and drums, paving the way for the British Invasion bands who solidified rock as a serious musical genre. In 1986, Fats Domino was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and in 2017, when Domino died at age 89, Paul McCartney referred to him as, “the great rock and roll pianist and singer who thrilled us in our early days in Liverpool.”
How James Booker lost his eye is a secret that died with the piano marvel. Legends abound from a tale about mobster-induced violence to a simple infection, but what is known is the eyepatch he wore, bearing a star down the middle, added a flair to his showmanship. Known as the “Black Liberace” due to his flamboyance, Booker didn’t live a long life, but he made an impact during his 43 years. Born in New Orleans in 1939, he was encouraged throughout his childhood to play music. By the time Booker was in his preteens, he was playing in clubs throughout New Orleans. His unique style captured audiences rapidly, not only in the city, but throughout the nation. In 1960, he had modest chart success, cracking the Billboard Top 50 with the instrumental organ hit ‘Gonzo.’ 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, openly gay, lived a troubled life and relied on drugs, ultimately leading to a conviction for heroin possession that landed him in jail for a short stint. This incident stalled his career and brought upon him poor health. In 1983, Booker died waiting to be seen in the emergency room. New Orleans’ great Allen Touissaint, recalling Booker’s legacy in a 2013 interview, said, “There are some instances in his playing that are very unusual and highly complex, but the groove is never sacrificed… He was just an amazing musician.”
Dr. John was a persona as much as it was a stage name for Malcolm Rebennack Jr., who had a prolific career as a musician and session player. Born in New Orleans in 1941, Rebennack began playing piano at the age of six, and by 13, he had made enough of an impression on Professor Longhair that he was invited to play with him. By the late 1950s, he was producing records locally in New Orleans. After a gun accident, in which he lost a finger, he moved to Los Angeles, where he joined Phil Spector’s legendary group of session players, The Wrecking Crew. During this time, he recorded with varied groups including Sonny & Cher, Aretha Franklin, Frank Zappa and The Rolling Stones. In the late ’60s, Rebennack developed the character Dr. John the Night Tripper, a voodoo sorcerer and healer – a tribute to voodoo, the African-based spiritual folkways brought to New Orleans during the Atlantic slave trade. In 1971, he scored a Top 10 hit, the funky ‘Right Place, Wrong Time,’ and was featured in Martin Scorcese’s 1978 movie The Last Waltz, a documentary on The Band’s final show, often considered the best live performance captured on film. Dr. John became an emblem of the city, as his music represents the soul and uniqueness of New Orleans. In 2011, Dr. John was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and in 2019 he passed away from a heart attack.
Allen Toussaint may be an unfamiliar name to some, but the songs he wrote became hits in the hands of others, and his songs have been recorded by a varied roster, including The Rolling Stones, The Band, The Pointer Sisters, Otis Redding and Three Dog Night. Born in New Orleans in 1938, Toussaint learned piano as a child and began his career as a songwriter. He penned the No. 1 hit ‘Mother In Law’ for Ernie K-Doe and earned an additional two Top 10 charting singles with ‘I Like it Like That’ and ‘Working in the Coal Mine.’ His musical influence shaped the New Orleans sound of the ’60s and carried it throughout the rest of the country. His solo career in the ’70s inhabited the genres of soul and funk. In 1998, Toussaint was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; in 2006, he won a Grammy for a collaborative album with Elvis Costello; and in 2013, he received the National Medal of Arts from President Barack Obama. In 2015, Allen Toussaint passed away at age 77 while on tour. The city of New Orleans came together to celebrate his life during a second line parade.
Alex Wexelman contributed additional reporting to this article.