Saturday, February 28, 2009

The Lure of New Orleans

Well, I'm feeling it, as I do every year about this time. About the middle of January, it's just an occasional twinge, but by the end of February, it's a strong, palpable urge - I've got to go to New Orleans.

I've been visiting New Orleans for 20 years, usually during the first week of April, when public school teachers and students are given a break from each other. And April is a great time to visit - the weather is warm without being oppressive, as it will be later, and the jasmine is in bloom, contributing its wonderful fragrance to the strange mixture of smells one encounters in that city by the river. But my trip last year was mixed. I played a gig with my friend Robo, we heard some stunning music, and ate some great meals. But my car was broken into, and my trip coincided with the French Quarter Festival, which made for some great listening, but also made for huge crowds.

So I had decided that I would go somewhere else and do something else this year. But as the time gets closer, I find that the lure of the Crescent City is too strong. I don't seem to have any choice.

I love other American cities. New York really is, to a large extent, what it thinks it is: the center of the universe. I love Chicago partly because it doesn't seem to realize how amazing it is - it just is. But there's nowhere else like New Orleans, and I can't seem to get it out of my blood. When I first visited, there were still a handful of second-generation jazz musicians still playing - guys born between 1900 and 1910. And they could still play, too. Now, of course, they are gone, but amazing music can be found everywhere: traditional jazz, contemporary jazz, funk, brass bands, zydeco.

And jeez, the food! I have done some major eating in New Orleans, but I've got to bow at the feet of my friend Scott, who gave a truly heroic gastronomical display one evening. I asked him where he wanted to eat, and he said, "Somewhere where I can get either oysters or soft-shell crab." So we found a table at Tujague's, on Decatur Street. Scott apparently still couldn't make up his mind, so he put away a dozen oysters and two crabs. My hat goes off.

People ask me what I do when I'm in New Orleans, besides eat and listen to music. A lot of the time I just walk. I can spend an entire morning walking in the Garden District or the Upper Quarter (the quiet side of the French Quarter near Esplanade). I'm not even entirely sure how to describe what I get out of this. I do know that the atmosphere and "feel" of the city is different from anywhere else, and surprises and discoveries can happen at any time. I was walking along Camp Street uptown one morning, and thought, "Oh, yeah, the Boswell Sisters lived on Camp Street. I wonder where?" Two houses later, I saw a plaque that announced that the Boswell Sisters had lived there. A stroll down another street might reveal amazing architecture, a hidden garden, or a cool cemetery.

The musically unexpected can happen any time, too. I've seen/heard the Nightcrawlers Brass Band grow to almost double its size by the end of the night as more and more musicians show up to sit in, Herlin Riley sit in with Eddie Bo (the regular drummer sat in the corner shaking his head), great musicians playing for tips in Jackson Square, and a wandering birthday party, complete with brass band, take over Lafitte's bar.

I'm fond of a drink when I'm in the city, but to me, Bourbon Street is something you walk across to get somewhere better - say, Donna's on Rampart Street. However, I do like to stop in at Fritzel's to see who is playing, and Lafitte's is my favorite bar in which to just hang out, have an Abita, and watch people go by.

New Orleans has taken a lot of beatings, but it's still standing. And, possibly against my better judgement, I'll be there in a few weeks, soaking it all up.


what's my name today? said...

The last sentence made me smile.

I'm sure you'll have a great time, but I do hope this doesn't mean you'll be missing any AKO gigs!

Jeff Crompton said...

Don't worry, Mysterious Stranger - Afro-Klezmer Orchestra music takes priority over (almost) all else.