Louis Armstrong, New Orleans, 1944.
Louis Armstrong, New Orleans 1944.Hansel Mieth—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
Louis Armstrong, New Orleans, 1944.
W. C. Handy and an unidentified trumpeter performing in New Orleans, 1944.
Benny Goodman and Teddy Wilson performing in New Orleans, 1944.
Meade Lux Lewis on the piano with Jimmy Yancey in the background performing in New Orleans, 1944.
Fats Pichon on the piano, performing in New Orleans, 1944.
Benny Goodman wagon in New Orleans, 1944.
Joseph Jones, New Orleans 1944.
New Orleans street scene, 1944.
Alphonse Picou, New Orleans 1944.
John Lewis, New Orleans 1944.
New Orleans street scene, 1944.
James P. "Jimmy" Johnson at the piano, New Orleans 1944.
Jazz poster, New Orleans, 1944.
Tony Sbarbaro on the drums, New Orleans 1944.
Jazz trumpeter Bunk Johnson, New Orleans, 1944.
New Orleans street scene (Absinthe House), 1944.
New Orleans Jazz musicians, 1944.
Jazz poster, New Orleans, 1944.
Coleman Hawkins (right) and his band performing in New Orleans, 1944.
New Orleans street scene, 1944.
Louis Armstrong, New Orleans 1944.
Hansel Mieth—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
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Celebrate New Orleans Jazz Fest With These Photos of the 1940s Jazz Scene

Apr 24, 2015

As the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival kicks off on Friday, thousands flock to the city to pay tribute to the birthplace of jazz and conjure visions of a colorful musical history. Long before Bourbon Street became a hub for tourists weighed down with plastic beads, musicians advertised performances by playing in the backs of wagons, the details of upcoming shows hand-lettered on wooden signs. It didn't matter whether the venue was a basement club or a neighbor's living room. The music that emerged from New Orleans had an unmistakeable sound, a confluence of styles that could only have come from the place where the Mississippi River empties out into the Gulf of Mexico.

LIFE's photographers were there to capture the feeling that accompanied that sound and the people who were creating it. The magazine's archives offer a veritable who's who of New Orleans jazz, from Louis Armstrong to Fats Pichon to Bunk Johnson, to the men and women whose contributions are palpable though their names are lost to history.

Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter at @LizabethRonk.

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