C and I went to New Orleans for vacation, for fun, but most of all, for music. We’re both musicians and New Orleans is the birthplace of jazz, the most American of music. We got music in spades, as well as deep, flavorful food, warm and friendly people, and an experience unlike anything we could ever find in New York.
By dumb luck we ended up in NOLA during the French Quarter Fest, and since we were staying right on Canal Street, that ended up working out just fine. We sadly missed Friday night and Saturday afternoon because of a cancelled flight… we ended up driving 20 hours through the night to get there! But our travel crankiness was quickly soothed with shrimp, fried oysters, sidecars, and music on Frenchmen Street. We caught the amazing Brassaholics at the Blue Nile, and managed to dance until late before we finally crashed.
To most of the country, “festival” means loud electronic music in a field with teenagers wearing flower crowns and instagramming themselves. In the Crescent City, there are festivals nearly every weekend, the live music is outstanding, and you don’t need to spend any money to go. Four camping chairs, four frozen purple drinks from Lafitte’s, two pounds of crawfish, five brass bands and a bunch of dancing later, I had one of the best Sunday afternoons of my life.
Just like Times Square is the worst of NYC rolled into one plaza, Bourbon Street is the New Orleans equivalent. With the exception of the beautiful Bourbon O Bar and Royal Sonesta Hotel, the street is full of neon and noise, mysterious puddles and odd smells. But walk just one block off, and you’ll see antiques and galleries on Royal. Gay clubs and French row houses on Dauphine. Cajun cooking stores and Italian delis on Decatur. Venture further down St. Charles out of the Quarter, and you’ll be rewarded with views of the most stunning southern mansions of your life.
Here is a list of the little things I learned on this trip:
- When you can drink in the street, the whole town is your bar, and it feels like everyone is on vacation. But wear closed-toe shoes.
- Crawfish are delicious, but a lot of work, and will connect you intimately with marine biology.
- Every town needs more festivals and costumes.
- Musicians in New Orleans sound natural and effortless.
- NOLA isn’t just fun, it’s gorgeous.
- I’m allergic to alligator.
- If you’re a musician, bring your instrument with you, everywhere.
- Fried chicken and biscuits ARE better in the south. Sorry, Brooklyn bruncheries.
- In New Orleans, a daiquiri is any frozen, fruity, alcoholic slushy beverage. Mandatory to have at least one, preferably while strolling the Quarter.
To explore the roots of jazz music, C and I took a few journeys that ended up being disappointing. Our walk to Congo Square was pleasant, but we were disenchanted by the lack of presence there. While we expected a Strawberry Fields-style homage to jazz history, Congo Square these days is simply a neutral, brick-laid space in Louis Armstrong Park. Our last show of the trip also left us wanting more. Preservation Hall lives in a building from 1750, and the space was created in the 1960s to preserve and honor the history of jazz in NOLA. We waited in line for an hour for the very limited seats and were thrilled to see the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, which has blown me away in the past. However, it was a short and predictable set with unremarkable guest artists, clearly marketed for the average tourist.
On the journey home (which was much shorter than the journey down south), I came to see the Big Easy for what it actually is. New Orleans is a city steeped in history, and is very proud of its heritage, but it’s not a gallery city; it’s an experiential one. In New York, history is celebrated by our abundant museums and institutions; our heritage is for watching. In NOLA, the legacy of jazz is not honored through monuments and museums, but through the constant presence and support of high-quality, live music. Their heritage is for doing: sitting in on jam sessions, dancing in the street, reading tarot in voodoo shops. New Orleans opens its arms to everyone, makes everyone feel at home, gets everyone’s feet tapping and booties bouncing. I breathe in the heady scent of sweet olive, feel my shoulders drop as I breathe out, and my hips move with a mind of their own. New Orleans, a city of full of heart, always looking for more, never losing the beat.
New Orleans, you have my heart. I’ll be back soon.