LOS ANGELES — Backstage at last weekend's "ReAct Now: Music & Relief" benefit, Good Charlotte's Benji Madden smiled as he recalled a recent visit to New Orleans.
"We went into this one place where all these old dudes were just playing blues and we stayed there a few hours and just listened," the guitarist recalled. "We went totally unnoticed and there was this mixed crowd of people that was just there totally just taking in the music. ... I'll probably never see those guys play again and never be at that bar again, but I'll never forget that. It was really special."
With the devastation of most of New Orleans from Hurricane Katrina, America lost (at least temporarily) not only one of its most historic, architecturally rich cities and the home of Mardi Gras, but a longtime musical hotbed that gave birth to jazz, zydeco and various styles of rock, blues and hip-hop. It's not only legal for bands to take the streets with their own parades, it's encouraged.
For decades, locals and visitors alike have been able to take in some of the world's best live music in New Orleans. And like Madden, most of today's top artists have fond musical memories of the Big Easy and many have been inspired by the city's sounds with their own music.
"I was raised around blues and jazz and country and it really did influence the kind of music I listen to and the type I would like to sing," said 'NSYNC's Lance Bass, who grew up in nearby Laurel, Mississippi. "New Orleans is my favorite city of all time. ... The culture is amazing. You have these jazz artists and art and it all comes together. There's nothing you can compare it to. I remember times going down Bourbon Street or Canal Street and you see a door open with music coming out and you walk up and go upstairs and there's amazing blues and jazz musicians playing and you sit there for hours just listening."
"New Orleans is a music town," added Rob Thomas. "They just love to hear a good live band. I mean, you could go to New Orleans on any given night and see some of the best jazz musicians in the world that you've never heard before on record, but they're just somewhere playing in the middle of New Orleans."
"American Idol" judge and producer Randy Jackson was raised in Baton Rouge and learned to play music by making frequent trips to New Orleans, hitting the clubs and their famous jazz festivals.
"God, I have so many memories," he said. "One of the things that I love about the city of New Orleans ... is it's some of the proudest people, musically, in the fact that you could say to people, 'Oh, you know, dude, it's really going down in New York.' Or, 'L.A.'s the place.' But these people are so happy and so proud that they're doing well and prospering in their own city, because the talent level is so high. Any given night you could go to any given bar and hear unbelievably talented musicians. They're so happy just to do that, they don't even look outside of that scope. So they love being right there in their own backyard doing their thing, they don't even care about L.A., New York or Nashville."
Jazz has now spread across the globe, but its home is still the Big Easy, where legends from Louis Armstrong to Harry Connick Jr. were born and raised.
"When I think of New Orleans I think of jazz," Ludacris said. "Everywhere you went they always had live jazz and I loved that."
"Jazz is the music in New Orleans first and foremost," added New Orleans native Chopper from "Making the Band. "Jazz is in everybody from New Orleans, no matter if you're a rapper or a rock star."
In more recent years, hip-hop has also emerged as one of NOLA's leading genres. With Master P and his No Limit Records, Baby and Cash Money, and Juvenile leading the charge, the hip-hop scene there was the first in the South to emerge as a competitor to New York and Los Angeles.
"They brought a whole new sound to hip-hop," Twista said.
"Music is generated to have a good time, and to me that's what the New Orleans sound represents," added Nick Cannon.
As Baby explained, "Our music runs deep, the way we talk, our conversation, our upbringing. And we've got a lot of different cultures that y'all might not know of, like second line bands and bounce music."
As a Mecca for voodoo and the central city in Anne Rice's "The Vampire Chronicles," New Orleans has also attracted a lot of goth rockers over the years.
"Those were my favorite books ever, so I was really excited the first time I visited," Benji Madden said. "And I always read that Trent Reznor lived there and that he made records there and sure enough the first time I was in New Orleans, I met Trent Reznor walking down the street. I looked up and there's Trent Reznor and I was like, 'Hi, my name is Benji.' It was a really good memory. The vibe in New Orleans isn't like anything else in the world. You can't find it anywhere else."
"It's so vibrant with music and so eclectic ... and it's all interlaced, the art community and the food community and the music community — it's all sort of a gumbo of entertainment," said Dashboard Confessional's Chris Carrabba. "And everywhere you turn, music is so accessible. It's just part of the culture there. ... It's a whole different lifeblood down there."
To find out what you can do to help provide relief to victims of Katrina, head to think MTV's hurricane relief page.