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The Sound of History

When John Sebastian of the Lovin’ Spoonful wrote “Do You Believe in Magic?” he set the tone for visits to musical destinations with these lines:

“If you believe in magic, don’t bother to choose
If it’s jug band music or rhythm and blues
Just go and listen, it’ll start with a smile
That won’t wipe off your face no matter how hard you try . . .”

Music and magic really are intertwined, and here are five historic places to let music and magic wrap around you before sending you on your way with a smile.

All that jazz in New Orleans

The cultural gumbo that is New Orleans has given the world many gifts, but jazz music may be the most pervasive. Cultural historians can even point to a specific spot you can visit today, Congo Square, as the place jazz was born. Congo Square was where enslaved Africans as early as the 1740s were able to gather for community, dance and music.

The story of jazz is the focus of the New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park, which comes complete with the Arrowhead Jazz Band that features National Park Service rangers. (The band takes its name from the NPS arrowhead logo.) Expect live entertainment, and even a participatory drum circle on Saturdays, at this national park in the heart of the French Quarter.

More good jazz can be found throughout the Crescent City. Perhaps the most famous venue for traditional jazz is Preservation Hall, where ensembles pulled from more than 50 musicians perform multiple 45-minute sets almost every night of the year. For a jazz club experience, spots on nearby Frenchman Street such as Snug Harbor, the Spotted Cat Music Club and the Royal Frenchman Hotel offer plenty of choices.

A century of country music — and more — in Nashville

Nashville’s nickname of Music City is well deserved. Its roots include the Fisk Jubilee Singers from the late 1800s, the Grammy Award-winning Nashville Symphony, and of course, country music.

The city’s country music story began in 1925. That was in radio’s earliest years, and Nashville station WSM included a Saturday night program of string band music called the WSM Barn Dance. Two years later, an ad-lib from the host changed the name to the Grand Ole Opry, and the show now is the longest-running radio show in the world, still finding audiences on WSM and on other platforms. It will celebrate its 100th birthday in 2025. Multiple shows beam out each week from the 4,400-seat Grand Ole Opry House in the suburbs and the historic 2,362-seat Ryman Auditorium downtown.

Several music-themed museums complement Opry performances and Nashville’s multitude of live entertainment venues. Among them are the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, the National Museum of African American Music, the Musicians Hall of Fame and the Jefferson Street Sound Museum.

A special Nashville experience is listening attentively at songwriter showcases in which songwriters (who often are performing artists, too) play their established hits and test-drive new songs. Among the venues to check are 3rd and Lindsley, the Listening Room and the Commodore Grille.

Going classical in the Ohio countryside

The Cuyahoga Valley National Park is a natural oasis between the urban scenes of Cleveland and Akron, and the Blossom Music Center is an oasis inside that oasis. It is an acoustically superior amphitheater that is the summer home of the Cleveland Orchestra.

This outdoor treasure came about for a practical reason — the Cleveland Orchestra’s musicians struggled in the summer between their regular seasons in Severance Hall. (They even played some dates before Cleveland Indians’ baseball games.) The search was on — for a site and money — and Blossom blossomed in 1968.

The orchestra schedules approximately a dozen summer events — pure classical concerts, a patriotic event for Independence Day and a few surprises, such as movie nights with the orchestra. That’s when a huge cinematic screen is used to project films such as “Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” while the orchestra performs the movies’ scores. The 2024 season wraps with “Cirque Goes Broadway,” which combines the orchestra’s prowess with aerial acrobatics and selections from Broadway musicals.

Blossom has 5,700 covered seats, and its expansive lawn can accommodate 13,500 more patrons. Guests are invited to bring picnics to orchestra events.

Go Texas-style country at Gruene

The first thing to know about Gruene Hall is that it’s pronounced “green.” The second thing to know is this unassuming building is the oldest dance hall in Texas. It’s in the Hill Country, 35 miles northeast of San Antonio and 50 miles southwest of Austin, and there’s live music — and dancing — seven nights a week.

Gruene Hall is inside the 15-acre Gruene National Historic District of New Braunfels and is a bit of a time warp. The building began as a community gathering place for German settlers in 1878. It thrived for decades until waning because of the Great Depression, boll weevils and changing times. Its revival began in 1975 when a young Pat Moxly, who had no hospitality experience, decided to dive into the music scene. After some struggles, approving nods from people such as Willie Nelson and Jerry Jeff Walker helped put Gruene Hall on the map.

Over the decades, up-and-coming acts and established stars have occupied its tiny stage. Ray Benson of Asleep at the Wheel tells the story that the Ace in the Hole Band opened his show there once. Why is that notable? The lead guy in the Ace in the Hole Band was a then-unknown George Strait. Admission — and dancing — are free Monday-Thursday. Expect a cover charge on weekends.

The Gruene Historic District can be a complete destination, especially for hub-and-spoke trips from San Antonio. There’s shopping at the Gruene General Store, Barbelles Boutique, Fickle Pickle Antiques and Pickles and a dozen more places. Among the food choices is the group-friendly 956-seat Gristmill Restaurant.

Going Greek in Los Angeles

Today’s visitors to Los Angeles continue to benefit from the largess of an immigrant’s gift to the city in 1896. Griffith J. Griffith came to California from South Wales to make his fortune, and he used some of his fortune to give his new city 3,000 acres.

In his will, he set aside $1 million to build the Greek Theatre, a 5,900-seat marvel that sits comfortably into a hillside and has hosted an array of acts since opening in 1930. One of its highlights was a Neil Diamond concert in 1972 that became his celebrated “Hot August Night” double album. The current season ranges from the Beach Boys to John Legend and from Lainey Wilson to Adam Ant. Other recent shows featured Dwight Yoakam and Emmylou Harris, Elvis Costello and the Imposters, Ziggy Marley and Trombone Shorty, Chicago and Darius Rucker.

Griffith Park’s original 3,000 acres grew over the years to 4,200 acres, and it contains treasures beyond the Greek Theatre. Among them are the Griffith Observatory, the Los Angeles Zoo and the Autry Museum of the American West, which add up to making Griffith Park a major group tour destination.