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New Orleans

August 10, 2014 | 5 minute read | By Kevin Read

Any story about New Orleans should begin with the air. The heat and humidity is a big part of it, not so much hitting you in the face as working it’s way quickly under your clothes and sticking every part of you together as soon as you step outside. The weather itself is important too, unpredictable and changeable. On the first day we were there, a clear sunny day turned quickly into a downpour of rain that filled the streets to our ankles, then just as fast disappeared to leave a dense layer of humidity which lasted the rest of the day.

But also there are the clouds of grease from street food stalls, cigarette smoke which lingers in the narrow streets, the sweat and alcohol of hundreds of revelers out all day and night. Cigar stores are all over the city and it’s legal to smoke in bars in Louisiana. The air in New Orleans is a fog of smells, grease and heat that made me feel like I couldn’t go for more than 5 minutes without a shower.

A lot of New Orleans is sandwiched between Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi River, and the city spreads out around the swamps of Southern Louisiana. Like most visitors, we stayed in the French Quarter, a small section of roughly 80 city blocks that actually represents a small fraction of the city but contains a lot of its attractions and some of its most interesting architecture. The area is strictly protected by local regulations, preserving a lot of the historic buildings and giving it an atmosphere more like portions of a European city than anywhere in America.

Bourbon Street is perhaps the most famous of New Orleans’ attractions but, unfortunately, it was a caricature of what it once was, presented for the hoards of tourists. Although it was as seedy and crowded as I had read about (those are the positives, by the way), it was more contrived and packaged. Souvenir stores were interspersed with the bars, selling I Heart NOLA tshirts and creole trinkets in bright plastic. Neon signs advertised ‘genuine’ gumbo, beignets, psychic readings, voodoo artifacts and other traditional local cliches. When you have written ‘genuine’ on the sign, you’ve given up on fooling anyone.

There’s live music here, in the hundreds of bars and nightclubs lining the streets, but none of it was accomplished jazz with well dressed clientele sipping mint juleps. Everything I heard sounded like a noisy cover of Livin On A Prayer, performed by only a bass player and someone who could smash a drum like he wanted it in pieces. The bars are so densely packed and open that the music from one merges into that of the others next door, until what you hear from the street sounds even more chaotic.

On Frenchman street, things were better. The music is ear splitting there too, but the crowds were less dense and the music more varied and interesting. Even late at night there were performers out on the streets and clustered around an art market in an empty lot between buildings. Like many parts of the French quarter, galleries, antique stores, homes, bars and restaurants are mixed together and spread out, meaning you can come across almost anything on a random walk through the area and that some of the best places to eat and drink are difficult to find without help.

For some traditional jazz we went to Preservation Hall, where the crowd sits in polite and attentive silence to listen to the music. This venue evolved from an art gallery where the owner would invite local musicians to perform. Eventually, in the 1960’s, the art gallery moved out, Preservation Hall was cleaned one last time, and it still operates today as a non profit organisation to showcase traditional New Orleans jazz with nightly acoustic performances.

The room is dimly lit and preserved in its original state, with no bar, no bathroom and no air conditioning. Two pairs of ceiling fans slowly circulate the air, one pair above the musicians at the front, and one at the other end where the audience either sits on the two rows of cushions and benches or stands around at the back. The walls are plain and the room is sparse, there’s nothing to do here but listen to the show.

I feel like I miss out with jazz. I enjoy hearing it, especially in a live show like that, but there are always some people who seem to have been transported by the music to some other plane of existence which looks like it is a lot more pleasurable and interesting than mine. Occasionally, one of the band would cleverly play a riff from another song, which would always pass me by, but you could tell it had happened from the looks of shock and admiration from certain people in the room, as if they had just experienced something controversial and scandalous.

This was especially true of the lead musician, a trumpet player who, while any another member of the band was playing a solo, would close his eyes and contort his face to expressions of rapt anticipation, appreciative surprise and then enthusiastic nodding and satisfaction.

I just heard jazz. Excellent jazz, no doubt the best live jazz I have ever heard (although who am I to say?), but he heard jazz and also relived every emotional high and low of his life in a 60 second burst of intensity. His was an experience beyond just the music that the rest of us could hear. I was envious. I hadn’t felt that way since the ice cream I’d had before the show.

Across town at the Maple Leaf Bar the scene listening to the Rebirth Brass Band couldn’t be more different. Here we packed into a dark nightclub and found our way to the front, with the stage looming over us and stacks of speakers all around. The band, in one form or another, is more than 30 years old and, as well as regular Tuesday night shows at the Maple Leaf bar, tours around the world and releases (Grammy winning) albums.

The show is loud, intense and sweaty. There is hip hop, soul and blues mixed in, all performed on trumpets, trombones, sax, drums and a tuba played by the only original member of the band. Where Preservation Hall feels like a museum exhibit stepping you back in time to the origins of the music, Rebirth is where jazz has come after another 50 years of evolution and change. After two deafening sets we stepped outside, ears ringing and confused about how it was suddenly 2am.

Every night is like that in New Orleans: confusing, loud and suddenly 2am. I came here expecting another variation on a major American city, but instead found an experience more like Buenos Aires or Paris.

There’s huge amounts to do in the city – the ever expanding World War Two museum, day trips to the surrounding swamps and plantations, learning about the recovery from the series of Hurricane Katrina related disasters – and as much culture and history as almost anywhere I’ve been. But listening to jazz in New Orleans belongs on a much bigger bucket list, one with snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef or trekking in the Sahara desert, one of the great travel experiences anywhere in the world.

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