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
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

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.”

Minton's Playhouse, New York, New York

(Image via Wikimedia)

Although the interior has been redesigned, Minton’s is still in its original location in Harlem, and some of its historic exterior has been maintained. Most importantly, perhaps: Minton’s continues to host jazz. Generally recognized as the birthplace of bebop, the club was once home to a house band led by a young Thelonious Monk. According to Kastin, the club hosted music at night, but truly came alive in the wee hours, when musicians who had played around town—folks like Benny Goodman, Charlie Parker and Charlie Christian—would come to Minton’s and jam together into the early morning. (One of the people who also came to hang out during the 1930s was Jack Kerouac, then a not-yet-famous student at Columbia.)

Louis Armstrong House Museum, Queens, New York

(Image via Wikimedia)

Louis Armstrong was one of the most influential founders of jazz, whether he was singing, leading bands, or playing the trumpet and cornet. As Dizzy Gillepsie put it, “If it weren’t for him, there wouldn’t be any of us.” After growing up in New Orleans, the great Satchmo lived for nearly 30 years in Queens, New York, beginning in 1943. You can now visit his home, which has been designated a national historic landmark. Though he rose to international fame, Armstrong chose to live in a working-class neighborhood, entertaining both heads of state and the local kids on his stoop. At his house, Kastin says, you can see his den filled with tapes he recorded: conversations, broadcasts he listened to and compilations of his own live performances. The spot also hosts live performances—there are several coming up this July and August—and even serves Armstrong’s favorite dish: classic red beans and rice.

American Jazz Museum, Kansas City, Missouri

(Brian Cahn/ZUMA Press/Corbis)

The local entertainment district for blacks in Kansas City during the 1920s and 1930s centered around 18th Street and Vine. Today, visitors can go to the American Jazz Museum (located right at the famous intersection), which focuses on the history of the area in the jazz era—when folks like Count Basie, Lester Young and Charlie Parker played local stages. Back then, the city was a kind of crossroads, Kastin says, in part because the railroad took musicians through town while they were traveling. According to Kastin, the town also became a bastion for illegal activity during Prohibition, when Kansas City was run by a corrupt mayor, Tom Pendergast. Pendergast’s crooked deals with bootleggers, nightclub owners and cops helped make the city a haven for jazz, drinking and prostitution—a combination that, gritty as it may sound, is also part of the American story.

Saint John Coltrane African Orthodox Church, San Francisco, California

(Image courtesy of Flickr user Jeremy Weate )

Saxophonist John Coltrane was a leading figure in the mid-century avant-garde jazz movement—but to some he was also a saint. Not in the official way that Joan of Arc is, but in a very real way to at least one California congregation. For an unusual jazz history experience, visitors can attend a service at the Saint John Coltrane African Orthodox Church in the Fillmore district of San Francisco. As Kastin explains, San Francisco had great jazz clubs in the ’50s and early ’60s, but most of them are now gone. This storefront church in a historically black neighborhood is keeping the beat alive, and using the life and music of Coltrane as part of their regular worship. “They see him as a spiritual leader,” Kastin said, “so sermons are focused around his message.” You don’t have to be Christian to get a warm welcome at the church: People of all faiths and backgrounds go just to pay homage to Coltrane, including visitors from as far away as Germany and Japan. 

Green Mill Lounge, Chicago, Illinois

(Image via Wikimedia )

During the era of Al Capone, jazz-filled ballrooms dotted Chicago. Many were open only to white clientele, even though they hosted black musicians. Most are now closed, but one that’s still active is called the Green Mill Loungea real time capsule, according to Kastin. What’s unique about this spot, aside from the fact that its decor will bring you back to the jazz-and-mob days, is that it represents the way locals experienced jazz all over the country. Instead of places like Minton’s in New York, where world-famous musicians were regulars, the jazz clubs of Chicago usually had local musicians, Kastin said. To the neighborhood community, clubs like the Green Mill were “just some place to go and hear music on a Saturday night.” Similar local music scenes existed in Philadelphia, Detroit, Cincinnati and Brooklyn—which makes this Chicago spot a throwback to the days when jazz thrived locally all over the U.S.

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