Jazz’s birthplace, New Orleans, is everything you’d expect it to be and more.
I MADE my first trip to New Orleans during Thanksgiving. It was the first time my wife and I were away from family on the American holiday – which is dedicated to gorging yourself on indulgent food, spending time with family and watching football. During the weekend trip, the hospitable people of Louisiana stood in for family. Live jazz was a considerable upgrade from televised sports. And we made all of New Orleans our Thanksgiving table, helping ourselves to gumbos and shrimp po’ boys and beignets.
I could give you a meal-by-meal rundown of my time in the Big Easy, but this is a music column. And if there’s one thing that can get me to put aside New Orleans food for a moment, it’s New Orleans music. There are not many cities that can claim ownership of a music genre, but not many can dispute that jazz began in New Orleans.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, jazz’s disparate elements came together in New Orleans because of the city’s location, population and culture. African spirituals and rhythms came via the former slaves who had been forced to come to America. (New Orleans’ Congo Square remains a music landmark; it’s where slaves met on Sundays to sing, drum and dance.) Latin elements, including syncopated styles and stutter beats, were introduced by Caribbean folks who had entered the port city. European composition and melodic traditions seeped into the music, too. After all, New Orleans wasn’t just an American city, but had been colonised by both the French and Spanish. There were all kinds of layers of flavour in this gumbo.
Unlike other genres, which got stuck with one name, jazz went by many monikers. It was swing, it was ragtime, it was syncopation, it was blues. For the past 100 years, people who want to place things in neat and tidy boxes have had a tough time putting jazz in its place – there’s orchestral jazz, acid jazz, Cuban jazz, bebop, jazz rap, jazz rock, and so on. Some musicians will tell you that jazz is a feeling. Others will call it a state of mind. Duke Ellington said, “It’s all music.”
With only a few days in New Orleans, I wanted to make sure we could taste as many flavours of the Crescent City’s jazz heritage as time allowed. I had planned to take in different shows at different venues every night of our stay. One venue that could not be missed was Preservation Hall, which – as its name suggests – is dedicated to traditional New Orleans jazz.
Located in the stately French Quarter, a cobblestone’s throw away from the bar bands on Bourbon Street, Preservation Hall is unlike any music venue I’d ever been in. No drinks are served, seating is basic, lighting is dim. Performances take place in what looks like a burned-out living room. It’s like a museum set up shop in a haunted house.
But the music, yes, the music, is sensational. A rotating group of musicians – some from New Orleans, some from all over the world – team up to play Nawlins’ classics almost every night.
The drummer stomps out that “big four” rhythm, the heartbeat of the city, and the small ensemble launches into something by Louis Armstrong or a traditional jazz standard like Li’l Liza Jane.
Lyrics are altered, solos are improvised. This might be a museum, but it’s a lively one.
Another night, we wandered just outside the Quarter to Snug Harbor on Frenchmen Street. Again, the name says plenty. Snug Harbor, despite being two stories tall, is cozier than a fully-booked Air Asia flight. The stage is small, too. And on this evening, it had to accommodate a big band that played big band jazz: the Uptown Jazz Orchestra.
The group’s leader is Delfeayo Marsalis (a trombonist in one of jazz’s royal family, which includes his father Ellis and brothers Wynton and Branford), who incorporates traditional New Orleans jazz into big band swing. It’s a powerful mix.
I’ll never forget the seasoned sax player with a soul patch blurting out a solo (and stepping carefully to the side to avoid falling off stage). Or the trumpet player who showed up late and got a ribbing from the guys in his row and, between songs, Marsalis himself, on the microphone. Some sort of magic happens when all those guys on that tiny stage bring an enormous sound to a small room.
For our last night, it was time to party with Kermit Ruffins – a New Orleans trumpet player who we became aware of because of his role on Treme, a television series about the city in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
And for this Saturday night blowout, there was no better place than the legendary Tipitina’s, named for the song by legendary New Orleanian Professor Longhair.
Tipitina’s has been around since the late ’70s and it’s one of those clubs where a live music fan feels instantly at home.
Ruffins has been called a modern-day Louis Armstrong (the trumpet, the humour, the froggy singing voice), but his live shows defy convention. This is a man as likely to play the New Orleans classic Iko Iko as a tune by the Black Eyed Peas.
The important thing is that, for two hours, your feet never stop moving, because the drummer never loses the beat and Kermit never tires of dancing, singing and blasting that trumpet into outer space. His enthusiasm for music is infectious.
But that’s how the music all over New Orleans is; the energy and soul enter your bloodstream. Everywhere we went, great music was just around the corner. A lonely girl with a coronet warbled Danke Shoen to an empty street while we had breakfast at Café Beignet. A half-dozen young trombonists did hip-hop dance moves and spat out punchy jazz on an afternoon in Jackson Square.
Marching bands brought a little swing to a Thanksgiving parade, while the second line did some funky stepping as they danced behind, kerchiefs and umbrellas in hand. I was thankful for the music, the food, the culture and the people of New Orleans. I can’t wait to do it again.