May 17-24, 2022
We arrived in New Orleans, Louisiana (NOLA) mid-afternoon and found our Airbnb in the Lower Garden District/11th Ward. Slightly off the beaten track in a neighbourhood where some streets had been gentrified and others had not (where ours was of course!). It had a New Orleans voodoo vibe with dark furnishings and was in the shotgun style (all the doors line up through the property to allow a much needed through breeze). Not as pristine as our flat in Nashville but it had everything we needed including a kitchen and air-con (essential as the temperature and humidity were continuing to rise). Unfortunately, there was building work going on next door which woke us up early most days which was not so good! But it was just a short drive from the centre and there was a nice little outdoor bar a couple of blocks away (The Tchoup Yard).
The heat had affected the car and the sensors for one of the tyres seemed to have got too hot and was no longer working. The tyre pressure when we checked it manually seemed fine so we had carried onto New Orleans and then called the rental company. They seemed less than worried about it so we thought maybe it was a known issue, but not ideal on a basically brand new car – it had ~4,000 miles on it by this point.
So, the next thing to do was to get our bearings and get to know New Orleans so we booked onto a city tour. We also booked up a number of gigs so we would experience some New Orleans jazz and blues over the week. It was too hot for a walking tour so took a bus tour. With an engaging native New Orleanian for a guide, we got a great overview of the history of the city including the impact of Hurricane Katrina which devastated the city in 2005. We heard about how New Orleans was a melting pot of different cultures and influences having been settled by native inhabitants before being ruled by the French and then Spanish and finally becoming part of the United States in 1803. Being an important port and with cotton and sugar plantations it was at one time the largest slave market in the United States. These influences can be seen and experienced throughout the city in the vibrant music, the delicious southern creole food, the association with voodoo and so on.
The tour went through a number of areas including the French quarter, the 9th Ward and the Treme as well as the City Park where we stopped at Cafe du Monde for the obligatory beignets. The 9th ward was badly hit by Hurricane Katrina and we could see that some houses had not been restored and people that had been displaced had either not returned to New Orleans or moved to another property.
We also had a detailed tour of one of the impressive cemeteries. Once again here you can see that New Orleans being built below sea level has always caused problems for the residents as instead of graves people are entombed in ornate marble chambers above ground because the ground is wet and swampy and prone to flooding which would mean that you sometimes you couldn’t keep a good (or bad) man down and they would float away even when weighed down with stones!
After the tour, we headed to Bourbon Street which is a historic street in the French Quarter filled with music bars (much like Beale Street in Memphis and Broadway in Nashville). It’s worth a look but the better bars with better musicians are to be found elsewhere.
We returned to the City Park on another day on our own to walk around the lovely sculpture park.
We also drove back to the Treme and visited Louis Armstrong Park and Congo Square within it. Congo Square is an important place linked to the history of the development of New Orlean’s music. Enslaved Africans would meet in Congo Square on a Sunday from the 18th century and dance and sing. These influenced the development of Mardi Gras Indian traditions, the Second line and New Orleans jazz, rhythm and blues music.
Our least successful outing was an airboat tour of the Louisiana wetlands or ‘Bayou’. Billed as an ‘alligator tour’ we saw precisely zero alligators. The airboat was fun and the scenery nice but the guide seemed dejected from the beginning, presumably because he knew with the heat we weren’t going to see any alligators and he had to try to pretend that there was a chance that we would!
It’s all about the music…
During our week in New Orleans we wanted to learn about the predominant music in the area which is the New Orleans jazz. As we had with country music in Nashville, we wanted to experience this city’s music in its different forms. In this case from traditional to the fusion with blues, funk and other styles. Most importantly where with country music there needed to be a guitar, with New Orleans jazz there needed to be brass – be it a trumpet, trombone or horn. We based our choices on where to go and what to see on the limited knowledge we had gleaned of New Orleans musicians and venues from the TV! Specifically from the drama series Treme (highly recommended). It’s set in the Treme neighbourhood of New Orleans and the drama starts three months after Hurricane Katrina. What’s wonderful about the series is not just the insights into the lives of residents of the area be they musicians, chefs, lawyers or politicians but it is infused and almost driven by the music. Many of the musicians and venues featured in the series are real. We also had a tip from Stan Street in Clarksdale who had recommended that we head to the venues such as The Spotted Cat and d.b.a on Frenchman Street and stay away from Bourbon Street – wise words indeed!
- Wednesday at the Square was an open air festival held every Wednesday evening in Lafayette Square. It was super hot that day (18 May) but the music was funky with Erica Falls and then the fabulous Big Sam’s Funky Nation.
- Preservation Hall is an intimate historic venue where traditional New Orleans jazz has been performed since 1961. It’s round the corner from Bourbon Street but a world away from it in atmosphere and the quality of the music. We saw the Preservation All Stars which on the night we went (19 May) featured the jazz trumpeter Wendell Brunius along with Mari Watanabe (piano), Caroline Brunius (clarinet), Richard Moten (double bass), Shannon Powell (drums) and Freddy Lonzo (trombone). Wonderful to see the elder statesmen of jazz taking the music seriously.
- We saw a couple of bands at the Blue Nile that we really enjoyed. On 18 May we saw a group of young musicians, Where Y’at Brass Band, who took the roof off the venue. We also saw the larger than life trumpeter and singer that is Kermit Ruffins playing with his Barbecue Singers. The gig was high energy and great to start with and then, the more Kermit imbibed, the more disorganised it became. Some other really good performers joined him though (including the singer James Winfield and pianist Yoshitaka ‘Z2’ Tsuji) and so it was a wonderful night overall and a very memorable experience.
- At the d.b.a we saw the Treme Brass Band and, yes, they played the Treme theme song. In fact the song was an existing piece written by John Boutte and entitled Broke Down The Door (The Treme Song).
- Other bands we saw that deserve a notable mention were: the Andre Lovett Band, Piano Man G, Street Lyfe Band, and Tajh and the Funky Soles.