A History of New Orleans Nightlife
New York might be the city that never sleeps, but New Orleans is the city that never stops partying. From second-line bands to music on the street corners, the city thrives on its nightlife.
A Legacy of Parties
For visitors, the first thing they want to do when they get to New Orleans is drink a hurricane on Bourbon Street. While that’s all well and good, there are many things to do in New Orleans in one day that go beyond the famous Bourbon Street.
The Big Easy is home to haunted bars, famous cemeteries and other historical landmarks that are spread all across the city. Of course, some of the most emblematic venues are in the French Quarter, but there are a number of other establishments Uptown and in the Garden District, the Marigny and the Bywater, including a few haunted ones, like the ghosts that linger around Muriel’s restaurant (which has a seance room).
In any case, it’s safe to say that much of New Orleans culture has always taken place after hours. Writers, musicians and artists have come together here for centuries to have a good time and create new art forms that would later define New Orleans’s nightlife.
Below are just a few famous time periods that have contributed to making New Orleans nightlife what it is today.
Pirates played a big role in the development of New Orleans. Transitioning from settlement to city, there were lots of gray areas regarding legal jurisdiction of property, so pirates thrived especially in the Quarter. In fact, there is an area of the Quarter called Pirate’s Alley, where these ne’er-do-wells would dock their ships on the water and venture into the city’s establishments to enjoy absinthe or rum. One of the most famous pirates of New Orleans was Jean Lafitte, who was well known for hiding treasures deep in the Louisiana bayou that have never been found. He was also known for smuggling goods in the French Quarter; among the most famous locations of his were a blacksmith’s workshop, which is now called Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop Bar and is the oldest bar in New Orleans—as well as one of the oldest buildings in the United States. People can visit the establishment and enjoy drinks over moody candlelight.
As pirates said goodbye to their swashbuckling ways to become oil men, the festivities changed as well. The Wild West wasn’t the only place people played Texas Hold‘em. Down in New Orleans, in fact, the Big Easy was one of the first places where poker became popular; French settlers called it poque (pronounced “poke”) and played frequently. This older version of poker was also known as “draw poker” which, after a few changes, became Texas Hold’em. For those who are not familiar with the rules of Texas Hold’em, the main difference between the game and draw poker is a matter of how many rounds are played. Draw poker only has two rounds until the showdown, whereas Texas Hold’em has four. In any case, Hold’em has become the most popular version of poker worldwide and is the most common variation of poker played in casinos.
The Birth of Jazz
The world of poker later went on to create some of the most respected nightlife establishments in New Orleans, like Harrah’s casino. Meanwhile, others enjoyed their evenings in different ways, such as through transformational music. New Orleans is famous for its live music tradition, which comes from places like Congo Square, located just outside the Quarter. As an area where people would gather to dance and make music, Congo Square acted as the birthplace of jazz and has since been credited for the prolific role it played throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. While it is difficult to place a proper date on when jazz was born, it grew in popularity towards the 1920s, when the rise of the Harlem Renaissance allowed Black musicians the opportunity to play their music across the country and led to the genre gaining national recognition. Congo Square remains a site where many live musicians perform today, although people now play different types of jazz, with the most famous being the second-line parades.
If you’re in New Orleans, try to venture outside of Bourbon Street. The city is filled to the brim with all sorts of stories worth taking in after dark.