We hit the road to celebrate America’s best music destinations, taking in the sweet sound of jazz in New Orleans, the tenacious, gritty rap of New York, good ol’ Memphis rock, and Chicago’s inimitable blues. So put on your dancing shoes and head to these 10 sweet-sounding cities.
New Orleans: Birthplace of jazz
In the 19th century, slaves gathered on Sundays to play drums, dance, and sing in Congo Square. Those vibrant rhythms of Africa collided head on with the sounds of Europe to create jazz, a seminal American art form that has inspired countless generations and spread around the globe. But this isn’t corduroy-wearing, head-nodding, polite jazz. New Orleans jazz has bite and pop. It sweeps you off your feet and makes you jump and clap and sing along. The great Louis Armstrong, who grew up here, once said, “What we play is life.” Music in New Orleans is more than just songs: Every note is imbued with heart, history, and soul. Listen now: “When the Saints Go Marching In” by Louis Armstrong on Spotify.
Chicago: The new voice of blues
During the Great Migration (1916-1970), when large numbers of African Americans left the South in search of better opportunities, Chicago attracted scores of people. They arrived by the thousands, bringing with them the sounds of the Mississippi Delta. Here, it evolved with the bright lights of the city and transformed into something bigger, electrified, and symphonic. The blues didn’t originate in Chicago, but it was here that it found a new voice and began to spread its message around the world. Follow in the footsteps of legends in the city’s iconic clubs, such as B.L.U.E.S., Rosa’s Lounge, Kingston Mines, and Buddy Guy’s Legends. Listen now: “I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man” by Muddy Waters on Spotify.
Memphis: Rock and roll visionary
Memphis is the birthplace of rock and roll. It was here in Sun Studios in the summer of 1951 that Ike Turner and his band the Delta Cats recorded “Rocket 88,” widely regarded as the first rock and roll song. But, like so many visionary moments, it happened by accident—the guitarist’s amp malfunctioned during the recording, creating a distorted guitar sound that would become a hallmark of the genre. People didn’t know how to classify it, but they knew they loved it. The rest is history. Listen now: “That’s All Right” by Elvis Presley on Spotify.
Austin: Live music capital
Austin calls itself the “Live Music Capital of the World” for good reason. Some cities have more history, others have bigger stars, but none have better fans. The secret is passion. There are over 250 live music venues in Austin, more per capita than anywhere else in the country and, despite the old joke about Texans liking both types of music (country and western), you can find any style you want, seven days a week. Listen now: “Pride & Joy” by Stevie Ray Vaughn on Spotify.
Asheville: Foot-stomping festivals
“Asheville is about playing music for music’s sake,” says John Stickley, one of bluegrass’s young legends. “It’s like Nashville, but not commercial.” This Blue Ridge Mountain town in North Carolina is rooted in old-time bluegrass and mountain folk traditions. Great songs just pour out of it, including some of the best live music venues in the country, free summer festivals, and the drum circle jams that bring hundreds of people to the main square every Friday night. Asheville, with its fast-picked guitars and foot-stomping tunes set against a backdrop of rolling Appalachian hills, won’t stay a hidden gem for long. Listen now: “Point to Point” by Jon Stickley Trio on Spotify.
Nashville: Honky tonk central
Nashville is music royalty. From the dive bars and the Ryman Auditorium to RCA Studio B and the honky tonks, this city is no museum—music is a living thing here. It spills out of every open window and door in a whirlwind of sound. It’s not about selling records or packing shows, it’s about the players: songs and sweat, dirty jeans and vintage guitars, and candles burning through the night. Listen now: The Grand Ole Opry live every Friday and Saturday night.
Detroit: Soulful Motown sounds
Detroit has two claims to fame. Not only is it the birthplace of that soulful Motown sound; it was also here that the Belleville Three started experimenting with technology and music in the 1980s in a way that hadn’t been done before. Techno started in these gritty streets and it’s still going strong. Detroit is a city with a remarkable story: one of the great boom towns of the early 20th century that went bust. But today, they call it America’s Comeback City for a reason. Explore Detroit’s roots at the Motown Museum or dance the night away at the annual Movement Electronic Music Festival. Listen now: “What’s Going On” by Marvin Gaye on Spotify.
New York City: Hip-hop haven
New York is one of the world’s greatest cities where you can listen to all kinds of music. But to experience a true New York state of mind, you have to leave the shiny towers and Broadway shows of Manhattan and head to Harlem, the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens. Here, the sounds and the streets intertwine: beats and rhymes, breaks and spins—a whole art form born from just two turntables and a microphone. Explore the city’s hip-hop history across four boroughs on a Hush Hip Hop Tour. Listen now: “Empire State of Mind” by Alicia Keys on Spotify.
Minneapolis: Prince’s muse
Minneapolis was Prince’s inspiration: He was born here, lived here, and died here. The city is a pilgrimage site for Prince fans everywhere, but it’s at Paisley Park where the legend comes alive. This predominantly purple mansion in the suburbs features a Hollywood-style sound stage, four recording studios, and a nightclub. Giant murals of Prince— with bursts of divine light shooting out of his hands—adorn the ceiling; guitars and pearl-string outfits are pinned to the wall; and an entire room is decked out in swirls of purple UV stars. This is how he lived—exuberant to the end. Listen now: “Purple Rain” by Prince on Spotify.
Seattle: Home of grunge
Seattle was the home of Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Blind Melon, and more. Grunge exploded out of these streets in the early 1990s—and though electronica and underground hip hop have entered the scene since—it still smells like teen spirit. Visit the unofficial Kurt Cobain memorial in Viretta Park, where lyrics and love letters are scrawled on two park benches near his former home, and London Bridge Studio. But don’t stop there: Before grunge, there was Hendrix, who was born and raised here. Jimi Hendrix Park, which opened in 2017, is dedicated to the guitar god, with memorials, sculptures, and lyrics etched into the purple-edged walkways. Listen now: “Lithium” by Nirvana on Spotify.
Follow Aaron Miller on Twitter. This story was adapted from the May 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK).