Last weekend I visited the amazing, vibrant and historic city of New Orleans for the first time. It will definitely not be the last . That place is like no other and known for so many things: food, music, history….humidity. Woof! Walking out of the airport the thickness of the air wrapped around me and wasn’t going to let go.
That sort of describes the whole experience.
It was only a few nights, and tropical storm Karen was threatening to ruin it, so we jumped right in right after the slow cab ride through rush hour. We headed out to Frenchman St. (just outside the French Quarter,) had some tasty food (red beans, rice, andouille) and then hit the music club across the street, called the The Spotted Cat. It’s pretty much a storefront bar—a small space with windows in the front and the door inset. The stage sits in one of the windows, so the people on the street can hear easily. The doors are open, the cool(ish) breeze blows through the filled (but not crammed) bar. There’s no cover charge—the only rule, hardly enforced, is you have to buy one drink per set. (Not tough.)
When we arrive a beautiful blues singer named Miss Sophie Lee, with a flower behind her ear, was lulling people in from the street. She had a sultry, Nina Simone or Billy Holiday like vibe. Unfortunately we only caught the very end of her act, and she exited as she passed the bucket for tips and asked the people to let the pizza delivery guy through – she was hungry! Her musicians were quickly packed up and seemingly only minutes later The Jumbo Shrimp were set up and we spent the next beer or so listening to their amazing jazz. I was struck at the authenticity of it all. Small club, pleasant people – and genuine, really talented musicians, making wonderful music all for the enjoyment of the crowd. There was nothing commercial about it. There was nothing amateur about it. It was the real deal.
Music is everywhere around the French Quarter. It pours out of the open doors and windows for blocks. People wander from place to place (drink in hand) moving from jazz to blues to funk to zydeco and back again. It’s the blues and jazz music that got me so excited. (In my youth I was a trumpet player, so….there you are.) Those following nights we hit several clubs in Bourbon St. (Funky Pirate Blues Club, Funky 544, The Bayou Club….) and we came upon Big Al Carson. He’s hard to miss. He heads up The Blues Masters, or as he referred to them: Three Fat Cats and One Skinny Dog. You can guess the dog. He’s got a soulful blues voice that charmed the whole crowd. I could sit and listen to him all night. I want to go back just to hear that man sing.
But earlier on that second day we encountered other music. We stopped in for happy hour at the famous Pat O’Brien’s piano bar for some wholesome (even if tacky) fun. And then, on our way back to the hotel to get ready for dinner, we discovered a wedding, or rather crossed paths with it. This was new to me. I’d heard of the famous New Orleans funeral, but hadn’t thought of other ways that the small jazz bands might be used. But there it was: the traditional white outfits playing jazz, leading a group through the streets (with police escort) celebrating! With the entire wedding party and guests dancing behind, many carrying brightly colored umbrellas, along with hundreds of strangers stopping to watch and whoop it up with them.
It seems that this kind of celebration and music epitomizes the place. There’s a sense of energy and excitement with the music which gets people pumped up and moving. There’s a huge sense of community. And most of all, there’s a huge positive sense of warmth, kindness and happiness.
It’s like that humidity that wrapped its arms around you and wasn’t letting go.
This discovery of music and culture, which is so vibrant in this city, is part of the reason why something like the aftermath of Katrina is even more heartbreaking. There’s a resiliency to this city and its people that’s been well documented. In the middle of the French Quarter we walked in to a museum that had two floors and two exhibits: Katrina and Mardi Gras. At first I thought it was a strange mix, but afterwards I realized it was exactly the right combination. The awesome destruction of mother nature and the desolation of lives and families, juxtaposed with the celebration and decadence and deeply historic multi-cultural, rooted celebration that is Mardi Gras—this is the recipe that defines this city.
In the lobby of the museum is a baby grand piano, lying on its side, with a leg broken off, the top gone, clearly water damaged. That alone was a sad sight. Such a beautiful instrument, and my whole life I’ve wished I could play piano.
But then I noticed the sign that read, “This baby grand piano belonged to Fats Domino. It’s displayed here just as it was found in his home in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.”
Nope. I don’t think that city is letting go at all. I’ll be back.