America has a rich and diverse history of music. It’s given the world jazz, blues, country western music, and maybe most popularly, rock & roll.
No matter what kind of music you love, chances are it owes its sound to elements of these American roots styles. And for those who love to travel, one of the best ways to learn about the history of American music is by seeing and hearing it for yourself.
From coast to coast, there are countless musical landmarks, monuments, museums, and concert venues that have been lovingly preserved so the generations can listen and learn about the places where it all started.
From jazz legends to rock gods to soulful singer-songwriters and pop greats, these 5 must-visit musical landmarks will, in the words of the late Aretha Franklin, “take you there.”
First Stop: New York City
It’s hard to imagine American music without the center of the musical universe, New York City.
There’s a reason why one of the most famous musicians of all time, John Lennon chose The Big Apple as home after he split ways with Paul, Ringo, and George.
In his words: “If I’d lived in Roman times, I’d have lived in Rome. Where else? Today America is the Roman Empire and New York is Rome itself.”
There are number of places to check out for those to whom Beatlemania was more than a passing fad.
Fans of the Fab Four should head to Central Park to give peace a chance in the natural beauty of Strawberry Fields.
Across the street at The Dakota, you can imagine what it was like on the night of December 8th, 1980 when Lennon was tragically shot.
If jazz is more your bag, there are several spots you should swing into. The first is Birdland, the famous jazz club, located these days in Manhattan’s Theater District.
Opened in 1949, this still-thriving venue has hosted all the greats from Ella Fitzgerald and Charlie Parker to Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk. With a cocktail in hand, whoever’s on the bill at Birdland is bound to impress.
You’ll also want to make a trek up to the National Jazz Museum in Harlem. This Smithsonian-affiliated museum preserves the history of jazz through exhibits and musical and film archives.
On your way, you’ll be able to pass several musical landmarks in Harlem, like the Apollo Theater, Minton’s Playhouse, and The Alhambra Ballroom.
If you’re more of a headbanger, then you’ll want to bask in the glory of Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Lady Studios in Greenwich Village.
While you can’t go inside (the studio still operates today, making records for the likes of Frank Ocean and Lorde), you might hear Ryan Adams working on a new lick from the street, or maybe you’ll spy St. Vincent or Patti Smith popping in for a mixing session.
Finally, for fans of the classic singer-songwriter and folkies, you’ll want to get a picture in front of the famous Brill Building on Broadway in Manhattan, where greats like Carole King, Paul Simon, Burt Bacharach, and Laura Nyro churned out the hits of the 1960s daily.
After that, head down to Cafe Wha? to take in some live music from the same stage where voices of generations sang in the past. We’re talking about Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and Jimi Hendrix, who all played here before they were household names.
Where to Stay:
New York is full of luxury hotels, but since this is a music-lover’s trip, you might as well pick one with some musical history. Some suggestions:
The Plaza Hotel: The Beatles stayed here on their first trip to America.
Gramercy Park Hotel: It appears in the rock film Almost Famous, and for good reason: The Rolling Stones lived at this boutique hotel for a while, and the guestbook includes names like David Bowie, Bob Marley, and Debbie Harry.
Hotel Chelsea: Set to reopen this year after 7 years of renovations, this hotel is on the National Register of Historic Places. Built in the 1880s, it’s played host to Patti Smith, Leonard Cohen (who wrote two songs inspired by his time there), The Grateful Dead, Bette Midler, and well, the list goes on and on.
Second Stop: Detroit
Detroit has a lot of notches in its musical belt. This is where The White Stripes and Eminem originally hailed from. But it’s most notable contribution to American music is the birth of Motown.
The soundtrack of the 60s in America was written and recorded in Motor City. Motown Records, still an active label today, was selling singles by the million for much of the decade, all out of a studio in a little house that you can still visit.
Rightfully self-dubbed “Hitsville U.S.A.”, the original Motown home is now a museum where you can stand right in the place in which songs like “Stop In The Name of Love” and “Please, Mr. Postman” were recorded.
While you’re in town, you should also make a stop by the New Bethel Baptist Church, where Motown hit-maker Aretha Franklin recorded her very first album at age 14.
Where to Stay:
Atheneum Suite Hotel: Touches of Grecian decor make this classic fit into Detroit’s Greektown, within walking distance of great eateries, theatres, and other entertainment options.
The Westin Book Cadillac Detroit: Housed in a 1924 historical building in downtown Detroit, this stopover boasts a top-notch restaurant and spa.
Third Stop: Memphis & Nashville
Memphis is the like the punk rock version of Nashville. For every polished country-pop hit that slid out Music City, Memphis replies with a raw soulful chart-topper.
Even though these Tennessee siblings might have a bit of a recording rivalry, this Tale of Two Cities has a happy ending. America wouldn’t be America without the music that has come out of this prolific pair in the last century.
Start in Nashville to get caught up on your history at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. Elvis Presley’s Solid Gold Cadillac Limo? They’ve got it. Johnny Cash’s black suit he wore on his TV show? They’ve got that, too.
Hit up Music Row to hear all your favorite country hits in-person. Loaded with historical venues, recording studios and shops, this district is the center of the country music galaxy. And you’re sure to find great live music at any hour of the day or night.
To round off your country music trifecta, mosey on down to one of Nashville’s classic venues for a concert experience you’ll never forget.
When you’re to immerse yourself in some rockabilly soul, move on to Memphis. The King himself, Elvis Presley, called Memphis home (and you can go see his home Graceland for yourself).
Memphis is home to some of the most important recording studios of all time, Sun Studios and Stax Records. Sun Studios, The Birthplace of Rock & Roll, still records bands in between giving tours of the room where Elvis, Johnny Cash, B.B. King, Roy Orbison and more.
Over at Stax, an epic music museum celebrates how the record label pioneered the birth of soul around the same era that Motown was rocking in Detroit.
If Motown was “Hitsville”, then Stax was “Soulsville”. This is where Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Booker T. & The MGs, and more recorded their hits.
For a studio that’s still operating full-time to this day and has given us some more hard-rockin’ hits, head over to Ardent studio. Established in 1966, heavy hitters like Big Star, Led Zeppelin, Leon Russell, James Taylor, The Staple Singers, and Isaac Hayes made music magic between the walls of Ardent studio.
Pop into the entry lobby to buy a shirt and see their wall of gold records. And if you’re lucky, Big Star’s Jody Stephens might be around to give you an impromptu tour. You could even catch Stevie Wonder or Bob Dylan hanging in the back, as they’re just a few icons who’ve recorded at this legendary spot.
Once you’ve soaked up the history of Memphis music, you’ll need to go hear some for yourself in person on the legendary Beale Street. Known as The Home of the Blues and “America’s Most Iconic Street”, this is Memphis’ version of Nashville’s Music Row.
Amongst the dozens of live music venues here, you’ll find B.B. King’s Blues Club and Jerry Lee Lewis’ Cafe & Honky Tonk.
Where to Stay:
If you decide to make Nashville your base of operations, then stay in style at the Omni Hotel, right next to the Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum.
If Memphis is more your style, then the iconic Peabody with its famous ducks (twice a day, hotel staff roll out the literal red carpet for a family of ducks to make their way for a swim in the lobby’s majestic fountain) will suit you well.
Fourth Stop: New Orleans
No one can think of New Orleans without thinking about the birth of jazz. Louis Armstrong, Allen Touissaint, Jelly Roll Morton, Fats Domino, Professor Longhair, Sidney Bechet, The Neville Brothers, and Dr. John all came from NOLA.
Strolling the French Quarter is like strolling through a jazz museum. And no music lover should plan a trip to NOLA without visiting the Preservation Hall. On a nightly basis, jazz lovers gather to hear the Preservation Hall Jazz Band blast out pure NOLA jazz sounds. With 5 shows a night, you’ll be able to get your fill of the classic Dixie sound.
Then head down to Lafayette Square, where you’re sure to hear some local musicians playing outside. And don’t let the word “local” scare you: in New Orleans, there are no amateur music-makers.
Not far from there you’ll find the famous Louis Armstrong Park, with its historic Congo Square. Congo Square was a designated place for slaves to gather and make music on their Sundays off, starting in the early 1800s. If there’s any one “birthplace” of jazz, it’s here in Congo Square.
Other important landmarks include the Jelly Roll Morton and Buddy Bolden houses, as well as Rampart Street, which, though now dilapidated, once housed many important venues, such as the Iroquois Theater.
Where to Stay:
The Ritz-Carlton: Exuding pure French Quarter luxury, this hotel, housed in a 1908 Beaux Arts Maison Blanche structure, lives up to the New Orleans spirit with daily house-made gumbo, live music in their lounge, a “Voodoo Ritual” in the spa, all topped off with an impressive wine list at their farm-to-table restaurant.
The Roosevelt – A Waldorf-Astoria Hotel: This hotel resides in an iconic 1893 property in the heart of the French Quarter, and takes indulgence seriously with multiple bars, lounges, a high-class restaurant, cafe, spa, and rooftop pool (with the requisite rooftop bar)
Audubon Cottages: For a private getaway within the French Quarter, this is your go-to. Plus, the exclusive saltwater pool is the oldest pool in the city.
As the focal point of the record industry through the 20th century and mostly still to this day, Los Angeles is a no-brainer last stop on your music tour across America.
The famous Capitol Records building on Hollywood’s Vine Street (made eternal in Randy Newman’s ode “Vine Street”) is one of LA’s most iconic landmarks. It’s resemblance to a stack of vinyl records make it impossible to miss.
Plus, the recording studio in the basement is famous for producing a plethora of classic albums. Frank Sinatra was the first to record here in 1956. “Surfin’ USA”, “Ode to Billy Joe”, and many more hits were also tracked in this studio.
Next, go pick up some records to take home at the world’s largest independent record store, Amoeba Music. With your vinyl collection rounded out, it’s time to see some live music in person at one of LA’s legendary clubs.
Your trip won’t be complete without seeing a band at Troubadour (where the likes of Tom Waits, Van Morrison, and Elton John made their names) or Whiskey a Go-Go (famous for breaking many bands, including The Doors, Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention, and The Byrds).
Finish off your trip with a libation at the infamous Rainbow Bar & Grill on Sunset Strip. This little dive is a legendary home for rockers of all stripes, including the self-proclaimed Hollywood Vampires (Harry Nilsson, John Lennon, Alice Cooper, Neil Diamond, and Mickey Dolenz), who made this their official hangout during the 1970s.
Where to Stay:
Hotel Figueroa: Madonna, Depeche Mode, Elton John, and more have stayed here, and for good reason. This 1926 Spanish Colonial building used to host Moroccan-themed parties, and the spirit lives on in its two critically acclaimed restaurants and three bars (all with amazing cocktails).
Chateau Marmont: Bob Dylan, Jim Morrison, Mick Jagger, John and Yoko, and just about every great rock & roller has done their time in this legendary LA palace. And we don’t use that word lightly. It really does look like an old European castle poking out of the lush green of The City of Angels. Here you can even rent your own bungalow for extra privacy.
Sportsmen’s Lodge: Icons of soul The Temptations, fathers of funk Earth, Wind, & Fire, and masters of the big horn sound Chicago have all called this refuge home. And it’s a bit of a historic stop for film buffs, too, as the Hollywood greats of yesteryear all stayed here at one point or another, including Katherine Hepburn and Clark Gable.
Wherever you decide to go on your musical tour of America, travel in comfort and style by flying private.
When you fly in a private jet with Mountain Aviation, you don’t have to wonder whether or not you’re in safe hands. That’s because Mountain Aviation flies with one of the highest ratings in safety and excellence in service, the coveted ARG/US Platinum Rating.