It was all a mistake. Attracted by the neon signs and the jostling crowds, I was walking down the famed Bourbon Street, looking for a pub throbbing with hot jazz or earthy blues. Hundreds of people staggered from pub to pub, clutching oversized fluorescent green plastic cups with alcohol; prostitutes and erotic dancers in lacy thongs and high heels hollered out at anyone who looked interested, and then the horror—a band blaring Pour some sugar on mein a brightly lit bar, and another band playing Summer of ’69 just across the narrow street. Is this really what’s happened to the birthplace of jazz?
New Orleans, the mythical place where African musical traditions, the blues, field hollers, spirituals, European classical music, military marching music, French ballads and Spanish dance tunes collided in a heady Big Bang that produced jazz, Cajun, Zydeco, rock ‘n’ roll, R&B and swinging brass bands, had turned into a dark Disneyland of bad music, terrible cocktails and sex for sale. Basin Street, home to the palatial bordellos that midwifed the birth of jazz by providing its earliest exponents a place to play regularly in the early 20th century, is now a residential area with a smattering of bars and restaurants. The place where Louis Armstrong learnt to play on a borrowed clarinet, hopping from bordello to bordello as a teenager to listen to the best musicians, offers no hints to this history.
This was a personal tragedy. The New Orleans of my mind is a massive collage of lines from jazz standards, rock ‘n’ roll classics, and 1960s songs—all the blues singers “going down to Louisiana”, Creedence Clearwater Revival “pumping pain down in New Orleans”, Ella Fitzgerald singing the haunting Basin Street Blues and Bob Dylan singing about a house they call the Rising Sun.
I was determined to find this city, but I had to leave Bourbon Street.A strange encounter with a middle-aged man on the banks of the Mississippi sent me hurtling in the right direction. He started by trying to scam me: “How y’all doing?” he said, “I bet I can tell you where you got those shoes from.” “Why should I pay for something I already know?” I asked. Suddenly, he dropped the act. “You here for the music, brother? What ya doin’ tonight? You want to hear some real music? Music that’ll make y’all jump up? You gotta head down to Frenchmen Street. That’s where it’s at. I’m gonna put my head on the chopping block if you don’t jump to that scene, brother.” Then he asked for money to buy a skin cream for the itch.
Musicology: (clockwise from above) A member of the Lagniappe Brass Band plays the trombone; a tuba player in second line costume; and musicians in the French Quarter.
I had my own itch, and needed the balm quick. There was no time to waste, and I hurried to Frenchmen Street, just about a 10-minute walk from Bourbon. Straight away, I could hear strains of the blues floating through the air. The source was a lovely little restaurant called Mojitos Rum Bar and Grill, with a lush, open garden area with wrought-iron furniture, and a corner patio with a band churning out the blues. Peter Novelli, the frontman of the band, has been a blues guitarist for more than three decades, and has shared a stage or recorded with New Orleans legend Dr John, Eric Clapton, Clarence Gatemouth Brown, Steve Cropper and other blues and R&B legends. His set jumped from standard 12-bar blues like Rollin’ & Tumblin’, Got my mojo working and Walkin’ blues, to more jazz-influenced blues originals, with Cajun rhythms played on a metal washboard worn around the neck. It was hot stuff. Halfway through the set Novelli’s band introduced Irvine Bannister Sr, a shuffling old man with a sailor’s cap and a white Fender Telecaster guitar—a local R&B legend who had played on the earliest R&B records and helped define the genre’s sound. Down the road from Mojitos, Checkpoint Charlie, a bar with large open windows looking out on to the street, was hosting an open mic night, with a California band playing a funk- and R&B-influenced set of originals, with a whole line of young guitar-toting musicians following them up with folk tunes, and existential originals. Two steps from that is The Maison, a deep, dark bar with a huge mahogany counter and exposed brick walls, and sizzling music that drags you in from the street with no effort on your part. The band on show was the cheekily named Soulabilly Swampboogy, a jam band heavily influenced by the blues, funk, and bluegrass. The band’s singer had a powerful, gruff voice that leapt out of the microphone and stung you. The trombone, saxophone, bass, drum and electric organ lay down a wall of sound for the guitarist to dance on. A little Buddha sat calmly atop the guitar amplifier as lightning solos flew out. The Allman Brothers’ furious Whipping Post slipped seamlessly into the Grateful Dead classic I Know You Rider.
Also See | Trip planner/New Orleans (PDF)
When Bourbon Street turned into a carnivalesque tourist trap, the locals turned to Frenchmen Street for the music. Located just off the French Quarter, the beautifully preserved 19th century residential area of the French and Spanish settlers, and hemmed in by Tremé, the oldest African American neighbourhood in the US, Frenchmen is a mix of quaint and colourful 19th century houses and smoky dives dripping with local music.
On any given night, the 20-odd bars and restaurants on the street will feature everything from hip hop DJs (rare) to bands playing ragtime and Dixieland—the oldest forms of jazz. As the night deepens, people set up barbecue operations on the sidewalk. Heaps of crawfish, thick steaks and greasy burgers sizzle to the tune of the music. Almost none of the bars have a cover charge (unless there is a big-ticket name on the bill), and the house rules call for just one drink per set. Unlike Bourbon Street, no one has a problem if you hang out for a song to check out the band before you make your decision to buy a drink.
Let the good times roll: (clockwise from left) Beignets covered in icing sugar and coffee at the Café Du Monde; revellers dance to jam band Soulabilly Swampboogy in the French Quarter; a jazz quartet at the French Quarter farmer’s market plays for tips; and the drinking starts early at a traditional New Orleans pub near Bourbon Street.
As a counterpoint to the electric music, head off into any small street that leads into the French Quarter. Most of the streets in this 1 sq. km area are quiet enough to let you hear the buzz of tropical insects. Row after row of beautiful houses in bright pastel, with filigreed wrought-iron balconies as intricate as lace, stretch out before you. Each more quaint and more spectacular than the other. Oaks dripping with Mardi Gras beads, cypresses, myrtle, bougainvillea and banana trees line the streets, with ferns reaching out seductively from hanging pots. French mansions and Spanish villas jostle for attention.
Ten steps from any direction will take you to a good Creole restaurant. But to fortify yourself for an entire night of great music and senseless dancing, look no further than Café Du Monde, a legendary New Orleans establishment that has just three things on the menu—coffee, hot chocolate and beignets. It’s all you’ll ever need. I had no idea that a simple thing like a beignet, which is just deep-fried dough topped with an inch of icing sugar, could be so addictive. Sit in the crowded and large covered courtyard of the café, open all day and night, and bite into the crispy exterior of the hot doughnut, feel the fluffy interior melt in your mouth and disappear, and watch the icing sugar fly and cover your clothes with each bite with childlike delight. I tried beignets at other places, including a place called Café Beignet, but they didn’t compare. You can’t fight perfection.
Time to get back to the music, back to Frenchmen Street, and to a dive called Balcony Music Club. A five-piece band—guitar, bass, trombone, drums and vocals were playing jazz standards. Fronted by the waifish Caroline, who sings in the style of Billie Holiday, Caroline and Moonshine featured some beautiful guitar work, but the vocals were just not powerful enough to stand up to the song list.
Down the street from the Balcony Music Club, Kermit Ruffins, a local musician who keeps the Armstrong tradition alive, and has become a nationwide sensation in the US, was playing at The Maison. It was so overcrowded that people were not being allowed inside. A few steps from there, at a pub called Dba, a funk band called the Soul Project was laying down tough grooves. Razor-sharp guitar riffs and chops that could have lasted an entire week coupled with cool horns and some laid-back singing kept their set alive.
Even on Bourbon Street, the Fritzel’s European Jazz Bar featured an excellent quartet of musicians playing old-style jazz, Dixieland and ragtime. The band jumped from traditional and ragged jazz classics such as St James Infirmary Blues to bright little Swing gems and bluegrass romps with comical lyrics.
An hour past midnight, I was ready to call it a day when I saw a stream of musicians entering the Balcony Music Club. Trumpeters, trombonists, saxophone players, a tuba player and a drummer with a minimalist set-up. It was time for one more drink, and to indulge in yet another New Orleans musical tradition. The Lagniappe Brass Band is part of a very special heritage of this dulcet city—the jazz funeral, where a brass band playing jazz dirges follows the hearse along with friends and family to the burial grounds. On the return march, the life of the deceased is celebrated with more upbeat tunes. These brass bands soon became a staple of the Mardi Gras, as well as the local music scene.
Lagniappe began with a simple three-step descending bass riff that immediately made your feet tap. The drums entered in bouncy, syncopated rhythms, sending your body into involuntary spasms of dance, and when the horns blew out the main riff, it was like a punch that made you fly half-way across the bar. The night was alive. The young ensemble chased down euphoria one upbeat, rowdy, bluesy number at a time. They played their heart out on every song—sweat dripping, eyes rolling up to the whites, hips shaking, trading solos, playing counterpoint. If the three trombone players played the main riff of Fire, a brass band classic, then the two saxophone players played the timeless opening lines of John Coltrane’s Blue Train underneath that. Deep, drunken, poetic solos blared out of the horns, and funky polyrhythmic beats kept everyone in the club on their feet much longer than they had thought possible. More than a century of different musical traditions coming at you all at once from all angles.
At my funeral, I want it to be like this.