Wednesday, February 17, 2010

A Virtual Jazz Tour of New Orleans

It's that time of year again. About halfway through February every year I start pining for New Orleans, that city where I've never lived, but which somehow feels like home to me. So I decided to give myself a virtual tour of my favorite city.

Lately I've been fooling around with Google Maps, particularly the Street View function. If you're not familiar with Street View, here's how it works. Go to Google Maps, zoom in on a location (close enough to distinguish individual streets), then click and drag the yellow humanoid figure at the top left, above the scroll bar. If any streets on your map are available in Street View, they will be highlighted in blue. Drop the little yellow guy onto a street, and the view will change to a panoramic, scrollable, street-level scene. It's an amazing technological achievement, as well as being somewhat creepy, in a Big Brother kind of way.

But it enabled me to "visit" some of my favorite jazz-related spots from 500 miles away. You can reproduce my tour here. I advise that you right-click on each link and open it in a new tab or window, so that you can easily find your way back here. At each location, you can pan, scroll down the street, zoom in, or zoom out. I encourage you to move your view around to get a sense of the neighborhood for each location. You'll figure it out.

We'll start where, in a sense, American music itself started: Congo Square. Before the Civil War, African musical traditions were kept alive during weekly Sunday gatherings of slaves ("generously" allowed by their owners). These meetings were centered around drumming, singing, and dancing. This shaded area is now part of Armstrong Park; you'll see the old Municipal Auditorium in the background. It's just past the edge of the French Quarter, toward the lake. (Directions in New Orleans are commonly given as "Lakeside, Riverside, Downtown, Uptown" instead of "North, South, East, West.") History hangs heavily in the air here, as it does in many spots in New Orleans. Here is the view from North Rampart Street.

If we go to the Downtown edge of Congo Square, by the main entrance to Armstrong Park, then cross Rampart at St. Ann, we'll be at Donna's. Donna's is a little bar with incredible music - brass bands, traditional jazz, modern jazz, and all combinations of the above. It's one of my favorite places to hear music in the city. That's the entrance to the park across the street.

From Donna's we'll head Uptown on Rampart Street. South Rampart Street marks the slightly seedy edge of the Central Business District, and passes through Louis Armstrong's old stomping grounds - a pretty rough neighborhood a century ago, but one with plenty of great music. On the right, at the corner of Rampart and Perdido, is the building which once housed the Eagle Saloon; it still looks solid and formidable. Buddy Bolden, Bunk Johnson, and Sidney Bechet all played here.

Continuing down South Rampart, there's a lonely-looking building on the left. Now a law firm, this was once the Red Onion, a tavern immortalized by the Red Onion Jazz Babies, a recording band featuring Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet. They both played here during their New Orleans days.

Further uptown we enter one of the poorest neighborhoods in New Orleans. At the turn of the 20th century, though, it was a middle-class, mixed-race neighborhood, and was home to Charles "Buddy" Bolden, reputedly the first musician to put together the strands of ragtime, blues, and spirituals in such a way that a new music was formed. Here's the view from the corner of Libery and 1st; the Bolden home is behind the big tree. A few feet further down 1st, we can turn around for a good view of Buddy Bolden's house. The house has deteriorated noticeably in the 20 years I have been visiting New Orleans.

St. Charles Avenue follows the curve of the river uptown. One of its major cross streets is Napoleon Avenue, and almost at the end of Napoleon, where it runs into Tchoupitoulas , you'll find Tipitina's, the famous club that was started for a simple reason: to give the late Professor Longhair a place to play. They feature all kinds of music, and most of it is worth hearing.

If you continue down St. Charles, you'll reach its end - you can't go any further without swimming in the Mississippi. Take a right on Carrollton, and you'll end up the the neighborhood of the same name, formerly a separate town. It seems sleepy and slow, even for New Orleans, but the Maple Leaf in the heart of Carrollton is anything but sleepy, especially on Tuesday nights, when the Rebirth Brass Band is in residence. The brilliant, troubled pianist James Booker was a frequent performer here.

After visiting Carrollton, we'll head way back Downtown, to Frenchmen Street in Marigny, past the French Quarter. Frenchmen Street has become the musical center of New Orleans, with a bunch of great clubs - d.b.a., The Blue Nile, etc. But the Cadillac of New Orleans Jazz Clubs is Snug Harbor, where you might hear Ellis Marsalis, Astral Project, Charmaine Neville, or a big name from out of town. If you leave this elegant club, you can cross the street to my favorite New Orleans dive, the Spotted Cat, an amiable dump where you can hear the fabulous Panorama Jazz Band, as well as other talented local musicians.

Further up Frenchmen, at the corner of North Robertson, you'll find the home of Jelly Roll Morton. Like some of the other historic structures in the city, this house has seen better days. This neighborhood was hit pretty hard by Katrina, and many of the houses are in rough shape.

Time to hit the French Quarter - an amazing place, full of incredible architecture, great food, tacky tourist stuff, and bars that never close. These days it's not really the most interesting part of the city for music, though. But I love walking around the quiet part of the Quarter, where Danny Barker was born in a substantial brick house on Chartres Street. There is a nice plaque on the house commemorating its heritage, unlike at the other homes of famous jazzmen in the city.

Around the corner and up a couple of block, you'll find George Lewis's house - it's the orange house with green shutters. I'm sure that Lewis paid next to nothing to rent this place in the 1940s, but it's probably worth a small fortune now. Many of Bunk Johnson's best American Music recordings were made here, and the first New Orleans brass band recording session was held in the back yard in 1945.

We'll make the last stop Preservation Hall on St. Peter Street - it has been my last stop many evenings. Depending on your outlook, the Hall is a tourist spot to be avoided, or it's holy ground. I lean toward the latter viewpoint. Even though my first visit was in 1990, when many jazzheads already considered Preservation Hall to be past its prime, I have heard Percy and Willie Humphrey, Kid Shiek, Narvin Kimball, Jeannette Kimball, Chester Zardis, Tuba Fats, Frog Joseph, and Harold DeJean, among others, in the cramped, uncomfortable confines of the Hall.

I hope you enjoyed the tour, which really only scratched the surface. If you've never been to New Orleans, go! There is much more to the city than Bourbon Street - you can hear incredible music every night of the year.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the tour, Jeff.