#AmericanMusicTrail: Jazz Mecca New Orleans is Just As You Imagined!
Life is sunny, food is incredible and there’s jazz on every street corner in the Big Easy
If you are a travel buff and haven’t visited New Orleans yet, just do all you can to make it happen! If you’re a music nut and this Louisiana city isn’t on your travel bucket list, too bad for you; there’s no place like N’awlins (as first-time tourists tend to call it) to experience jazz in all its glory and to just simply witness how a place can smell of celebration.
This city by the Mississippi river is also where I flagged off my #AmericanMusicTrail. The birthplace of jazz and a melting pot of European and African-American cultures, New Orleans entices all your senses all at once. The distinct, mouthwatering Creole-meets-Cajun-meets-Southern cuisine goes excellently with old-school jazz, and the abundance of colonial history as evident in the city’s architecture makes the experience a heady mix.
No such thing as too much jazz
Whether it’s inside a club, on a cruise ship or outside a café, jazz is in the air in New Orleans, Louisiana (also acronymously referred to as NOLA!). You get the first whiff of it upon arrival at the airport, fondly named after its legendary native, the trumpeter Louis Armstrong. It’s hard to miss the triumphant wafts of big band jazz on the PA system as you wait for your luggage in the compact wood-finished terminal. A statue of Armstrong caught in gleeful horn-playing greets you just around the corner. If jazz-club hopping is your number one agenda in the Big Easy (my favourite monicker), perhaps a good way to start is by embarking on a cruise of Steamboat Natchez in the evening, which gives a scenic tour of the city. The boat departs everyday at 7pm from the Toulouse Street Wharf and takes you on a two-hour sail of the Mississippi.
On the upper deck, the Grammy-nominated band Dukes of Dixieland whip up renditions popular jazz standards, giving a thrilling, all-new meaning to familiar tunes like “Basin Street Blues” and “Down by the Riverside” which yesteryear jazzmen wrote as tributes to New Orleans. The buffet dinner aboard is a delightful spread of local seafood delicacies like crawfish and gumbo—and all the other dishes that you have probably heard on song “Jambalaya.”
The legacy of the French Quarter
The reason why New Orleans looks the way it does is because in the last 300 years, the city went from being a French territory (after they claimed Louisiana in the late 17th century) to a Spanish acquisition in 1763, before being returned to the French in 1800 as part of the secret Treaty of San Ildefonso. Not too long into this arrangement, in another turn of events, the French sold Louisiana to the Americans in 1803, as part of the historic Louisiana Purchase.
During these eventful exchanges between the powers that be, New Orleans developed as a culturally unique place with its distinct food, nightlife and architecture. It looked and felt different from the other Southern cities and in the 20th century soon grew to become a tourist attraction.
NOLA’s oldest neighbourhood is the French Quarter and in its heart lies the famous Bourbon Street, home to a string of jazz clubs and burlesque bars. Back in the day, this area flourished as a hub where the growing influx of traders, visitors and wartime mercenaries entertained themselves. Today, this street, which spans from Canal Street to Esplanade Avenue, is a microcosm of New Orleans.
Jazz for every appetite
There’s jazz and blues bursting from every nook on this street – if a polished band inside a ticketed venue is not performing it, it’s probably being blasted by live-electronica duo inside a rowdy club, or found in the weathered but safe hands of busker outside a cafe. In the evenings, it is not uncommon to find an extensive brass band parading down the street.
The Jazz Playhouse is a great place for a relaxed, sit-down jazz experience. The day I visited, Gerald French & The Original Tuxedo Jazz Band were on the bill and they played a robust set of jazz standards, catering to everyone’s appetite with dexterous improvisations and solos. Speaking of versatility, who knew that after a rather formidable rendition of Little Willie John’s “Fever,” their comedic version of “All of Me” (a Gerald Marks and Seymour Simons’ classic) about a man struggling after a divorce would have everyone in splits! “She took my car/Now I’m catching an Uber” sang the vocalist with a deadpan face.
While Bourbon Street is the de facto nightlife mecca in NOLA, it is a few blocks down the road, at the unpretentious Frenchmen Street where things get down and dirty as far as non-touristy jazz is concerned. It houses a bevy of clubs with live bands that go beyond popular covers. At one of the bars, Maison, I had swell time soaking in the neo-soul-meets-experimental jazz performed by a six-member band featuring the customary horn section. Other clubs on the Frenchemen Street include The Spotted Cat, Apple Barrel, The Blue Nile and others.
The Big Easy binge
New Orleans’ gastronomical gifts are best enjoyed with an open mind and a huge appetite for seafood. Try visiting the Desire Oyster Bar where I discovered between rounds of the classic N’awlins cocktail Hurricane that no culinary creation could match the unparalleled charm of a plate of chargrilled butter-glazed oysters. And that crispy, batter-fried whole crab is an unexplored, under-appreciated munchie.
The famous New Orleans’ po’ boy – a local sandwich made with French-style baguette-like bread – is delightful snack too. You can find it everywhere and it’s best eaten fresh. The shrimp po’ boy that I wolved down at the swish café American Sector located next to the World War II Museum was every bit satiating.
If vintage kitchens are your thing and you aren’t averse to powdered sugar, do make a breakfast visit to the historical Café du Monde. Try their world-famous beignets, the pillow-shaped deep-fried pastries laden with icing sugar, with a cup of café au lait. After polishing off a couple of these, enjoy watching others go about the rather tricky business of eating the humble beignet, which mind you has the remarkable ability to stir up a sugar storm just around your nose!
ALSO, DON’T FORGET TO:
– Visit the vibrant Mardi Gras World to check out the elaborate floats and know about the history and politics of the world’s largest carnival.
– Take a walking tour of the French Quarter and click pictures of some of the most breathtaking buildings boasting exquisite facades and ironwork.
– Experience the sheer gravity of the war pain and suffering at World War II Museum, which might be one of the most immersive museums you would ever visit.