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Music makes these cities

There are some cities so famous for music that their names are virtually synonymous with the musical styles that they engendered.

American popular music covers a staggering array of variations and influences, with traditions imported from around the world and remixed on stages and in studios around the country. Many eras in music history have become defined by new sounds that emerged out of individual American cities.

Today’s travelers can engage with the famous music heritage of cities such as Kansas City, Missouri; Memphis, Tennessee; Athens, Georgia; and Seattle. Along the way, they can also find ways to hear some of the best new music that these destinations have to offer.


Jazz of the 1930s

Kansas City, Missouri

In the early 20th century, jazz’s origin was evident in numerous cities around the country. By the time of Prohibition and the Great Depression, political and economic forces had set up Kansas City as one of the nation’s hot spots for live jazz.

“Jazz really took off in Kansas City in the 1920s, and then it flourished in the ’30s,” said Derek Klaus, senior communications manager for the Kansas City Convention and Visitors Association. “During Prohibition, alcohol still flowed freely here because of a lax political boss. Kansas City became known as a destination for entertainment and nightlife, so musicians flocked here to play. Kansas City earned the nickname Paris of the Plains.”

Groups can learn more about that era in music in the Historic Jazz District downtown in the 18th and Vine neighborhood. The area is home to the American Jazz Museum, which tells the story of jazz development and notable musicians such as Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald and Kansas City’s own Charlie Parker. The museum is the only one in the country dedicated exclusively to jazz.

After exploring the museum, groups can get a taste of modern jazz in Kansas City by visiting some of the 40 nightclubs in the area that feature live jazz on a regular basis.

“The best way for groups to experience this is through a jazz crawl,” Klaus said. “The Kansas City Jazz Ambassadors can put that together for you. A group can visit three or four different jazz clubs throughout a night and experience different varieties of Kansas City jazz — vocal, instrumental and even tap dancing.”


Rock and Soul of the 1950s

Memphis, Tennessee

For a whole generation of Americans, rock ’n’ roll music was born when Elvis Presley burst onto the national scene from a Memphis record company. Since then, the city has been sacred ground for fans of numerous kinds of music.

“Memphis is known as the home of the blues and the birthplace of rock ’n’ roll,” said Jonathan Lyons, director of public relations for the Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau. “A lot of roots of American music started in Memphis. A lot of people say that rock ’n’ roll was created when Elvis recorded at Sun Studio on July 5, 1954.”

This year, the 60th anniversary of that recording will be celebrated throughout the city. Sun Studio is now a National Historic Landmark, and groups can tour the studio to learn about its role in music history and the legendary artists who recorded there. Graceland, Presley’s home, is also commemorating the anniversary with a special exhibit running throughout the year.

The Memphis Rock and Soul Museum gives group travelers a great overview of Memphis’ place in the music of the 20th century, as well as the city’s ongoing music recording industry. And the Stax Museum showcases the soul music pioneered in Memphis by musicians such as Isaac Hayes and Otis Redding.

For contemporary live music, travelers can check out the famed blues clubs on Beale Street or venture outside downtown to mingle with locals at a free outdoor concert.

“One of the biggest jewels that we have is the Levitt Shell, an outdoor amphitheater about 15 minutes from downtown,” Lyons said. “One of Elvis’ first rock concerts took place there. They do 53 concerts a year. It’s a huge popular thing with the locals. They do a mix of national musicians and great local acts.”


New Wave of the 1980s

Athens, Georgia

As disco fever died out in the late 1970s and early 1980s, a new American music labeled New Wave began to emerge. Athens, a college town in Georgia, found itself at the epicenter of the movement as local bands such as R.E.M. and the B-52s went quickly from local love to national fame.

Today, ’80s music lovers can get to know the best of Athens’ music history on a tour of the city.

“There are music history tours that people can take — we can have step-on guides for a group, or do walking or self-guided tours,” said Hannah Smith, director of marketing and communication for the Athens Convention and Visitors Bureau. “A company called Classic City Tours does a music history tour with a guide that was part of the music scene in the ’70s and ’80s. He hung out with the members of R.E.M., so he knows all the stories.”

History tours highlight popular and historic venues around town, such as the church where R.E.M. rehearsed and played early shows, and the Georgia Theatre, the largest live music venue in town. Participants will also see sites such as the Murmur Trestle, which served as the iconic backdrop for the cover photo on R.E.M.’s album “Murmur.”

Today, there are hundreds of bands playing around Athens, and groups can find a variety of live performances going on any night of the week.

“It’s not just indie or new wave music anymore,” Smith said. “If you’re into Americana, bluegrass, jazz or hip-hop, there’s all of that music going on.”


Grunge of the 1990s


What Athens did for new wave music in the ’80s, Seattle did for grunge in the ’90s. Famous grunge and alternative rock groups such as Nirvana and Pearl Jam got their starts in Seattle playing at many of the venues in which local artists continue to perform today.

Seattle promotes itself as the “City of Music” and offers printed maps and downloadable smartphone apps that visitors can use to take self-guided tours of sites important to the city’s music history, such as the Crocodile Café, the Show Box and Viretta Park.

“Viretta Park is the place where Kurt Cobain died, and it has become something of a memorial to him,” said James Keblas of the city of Seattle’s Music and Film Office. “It’s also right next to Jimi Hendrix’s grave.”

Groups can learn about the development of Seattle grunge by visiting the Experience Music Project, a large museum with exhibits that detail the music of the Pacific Northwest. The first floor of the local Hard Rock Café also serves as a shrine to Seattle’s music history.

Today, visitors can find music everywhere they go in Seattle, from live performances at the airport to buskers in Pike Place Market. Keblas also recommended spending an evening in music neighborhoods such as Capitol Hill or Ballard Avenue.

“Our music scene is far better today than it was even in the ’90s,” he said. “There are far more music venues than ever before, and even on a weeknight, they are packed.”



Brian Jewell

Brian Jewell is the executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. In more than a decade of travel journalism he has visited 48 states and 25 foreign countries.