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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.