Jazz is considered an original American musical genre, and it is widely celebrated throughout the world today. But its roots are much more humble. In fact, its origins can be traced to the time of slavery in America when work songs were created in the form of “call and response.” Jazz as a music form emerged in the South during the early 1900s, and by that time it was greatly influenced by African dance and drumming, ragtime, brass marching bands and blues—which also arose in that region.
Planning a motorcycle trip to tap into the roots of early American jazz requires a visit to the great Gulf Coast city of New Orleans, which in the early 20th century became the center of the jazz world. At the time, New Orleans was a thriving sea- and river-trading port with a substantial entertainment center. A vibrant cultural melting pot, the city was home to residents from many diverse traditions and ethnic backgrounds. As musical expressions from all over the world collided and competed, jazz became a unifying musical experience.
Getting to New Orleans on two wheels is half the fun of this jazz journey (see sidebar), but once you’ve arrived—most likely tired and hungry—start your tour with a meal at Mother’s Restaurant, on the corner of Poydras Street and Tchoupitoulas in the Central Business District. The legendary eatery has been turning out made-from-scratch New Orleans classics since 1938, and serves over 175,000 pounds of freshly baked meats—not to mention 1500 gallons of spicy Creole mustard—to its customers each year. For late risers—another tradition in New Orleans—breakfast is served all day.
For tourists, the French Quarter of New Orleans conjures up images of exquisite food and eclectic clubs where the vibrant sounds of jazz echo into the streets and alleys night and day. It’s an image the city justifiably markets, and a visit to the historic Preservation Hall, just three blocks from the Mississippi River, is a must for jazz lovers. Originally an 18th century residence, the hall evolved into a public tavern and gallery, then a sanctuary created in the 1960s for New Orleans–style jazz. On any given night, seven days a week, the hall resonates with the music of local musicians, veteran and novice alike.
For a more intimate experience, check out Fritzel’s European Jazz Pub on Bourbon Street. It’s the oldest operating jazz club in New Orleans, set in a historic 18th century building. And just down the street is Maison Bourbon. Dedicated to the preservation of the genre, this famous club entertains with authentic jazz well into the night.
If you can plan your trip to coincide with the weather, then late April is a great time to visit New Orleans. Spring is in full bloom, and the oppressive summer humidity is still but a promise. Best of all, you can attend the weeklong New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. The legendary singer Mahalia Jackson and composer Duke Ellington are credited with putting the festival on the national map in the 1970s. Each year, hundreds of thousands of music fans gather to celebrate the roots of jazz and the many music forms that it has spawned, and the list of top performers is unparalleled by any other festival in the world.
Can’t make it to the festival? Then be sure to jump into the world of jazz with both feet at the New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park. Located in the heart of the French Quarter, the park pays tribute to the people and events that shaped one of America’s most enduring and popular music styles. Admission is free, and the park is open year-round. Park rangers conduct a variety of visitor programs throughout the year, and live music performances take place every Saturday and Wednesday. A good starting point is the visitor’s center on Peters Street, which is open daily except Mondays. Info on two good walking tours is available at the center: the Jazz Walk in Algier’s Point and an 11-stop tour of jazz history sites.
If big crowds are not your thing and your roots of jazz tour is grounded in history, then a short detour to nearby Baton Rouge and the Louisiana State Museum Jazz Collection is in order. The museum houses the world’s largest collection of instruments owned and played by important figures in jazz, including legends such as Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke, Edward "Kid" Ory, Sidney Bechet and Dizzy Gillespie. Originally started in the mid-1900s in New Orleans by the New Orleans Jazz Club, the collection eventually moved to the old US Mint at the foot of Esplanade Avenue, where it is open to the public for viewing year-round.
A visit to New Orleans would not be complete without coffee and beignets from Café Du Monde. Although there are now eight locations around the city, the original location in the French Market on Decatur Street has been going strong since it opened its doors in 1862. The coffee stand serves its renowned dark roast coffee and beignets—sinfully delicious French doughnuts bathed in powdered sugar—24 hours a day, seven days a week.
We’ve just scratched the surface of jazz history, hangouts and must-see venues in New Orleans. There’s more background about American jazz on the US Park Service jazz history Web site, and the New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corporation has an extensive list of jazz clubs on its Web site.
Getting to New Orleans
There are few roads as majestic and none longer than the Great River Road, a national scenic byway that traces the Mississippi River for 2069 miles through (alphabetically) Arkansas, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Tennessee and Wisconsin. If you are approaching New Orleans from the north, more than 700 miles of the road traverse Louisiana’s rural towns, historic sites, antebellum homes and plantations, the state capitol Baton Rouge and, of course, New Orleans.
If you are traveling from the west along I-10, take a detour in southwestern Louisiana to travel another gorgeous scenic byway, the Creole Nature Trail. This region, known as Louisiana's Outback, features marshes and prairies along the Gulf of Mexico. As you loop through Calcasieu and Cameron parishes, wildlife abounds, including alligators and scores of birds, along with colorful wildflowers and rare cheniers shaped by salty winds.
In southeastern Louisiana, there are a number of historical and cultural sites of interest worth visiting as well. Many of them are catalogued by the National Park Service here.
Approaching from the northeast? The famous Natchez Trace Parkway beckons you to sample some or all of its 444 sinuous miles. Originally an 8,000-year-old primitive trail that stretched 500 miles through the wilderness from modern-day Natchez, MS, to Nashville, TN, the Trace provides a fascinating glimpse into times gone by but not forgotten, including a number of Civil War battlefields.
If you are approaching from the east along I-10 through Alabama, don’t overlook the many attractions of Mobile Bay. Included among them are the National Historic Landmarks of Fort Morgan and Fort Gaines, the protected lands of the Dauphin Island Audubon Sanctuary, Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge, Weeks Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve and Gulf State Park.