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Where to Celebrate the History of American Jazz

These six spots are just a short riff on what makes the musical genre particular to the United States

Louis Armstrong playing in Rome in 1959. You can visit his house in Queens, New York, and see how he lived for the last 30 years of his life. (Vittoriano Rastelli/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

Whether you listen to jazz or don't care for it at all, the music that emerged at the beginning of the 20th century tells a larger story about America. With its origin in the African rhythms that came over on slave ships and the blues that emerged later, jazz represents something quintessentially American, a journey from oppression to freedom of expression. And despite how particular it is to our country, jazz is also an art form recognized and played the world over—so much so that UNESCO has designated April 30 International Jazz Day. This year, the official International Jazz Day celebration takes place in Paris, featuring a huge concert with Herbie Hancock and Dianne Reeves, among others. (There are also shows and events around the world, all listed on this Unesco map.) But there's no need to get on a plane to immerse yourself in the history of this American phenomenon. Here are six of the most important places—ones you can still see in person—to experience the history of jazz in the U.S., and to even hear some tunes.

Congo Square, New Orleans, Louisiana

(Bob Sacha/Corbis)

To start where jazz began, head to Congo Square. This small pocket of land in New Orleans, once an open field, now a national historic park, had a major influence on American music. From the mid-18th to the 19th century, Congo Square was a gathering place where slaves and free blacks could dance to the beat of African drumming and singing. At the time, it was a field on the edge of the Treme plantation, which sat just outside what was then the city walls, and hosted drum circles, dancing, goods trading and socializing. The ability to socialize there played an important role in maintaining African community and traditions, including keeping some of the rhythms brought over on slave ships alive. David Kastin, jazz historian and author of several books, including the award-winning Nicas Dream, says that “For all intents and purposes, it’s the birthplace of American music.”

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