When the jazzman testifies

Let me write more of New Orleans.

Specifically, I’d like to tell you more about last night. As I said, I tripped into town in the company of two other India House tenants. We avoided the commercial side of The Big Easy to start with, swinging into Frenchman street via Jackson Square. This is the more authentic, relaxed area of the city, with the gorgeously decrepit houses listing gently in the damp night air. Iron lattice adorns every balcony, the houses are brightly coloured in peeling paints, and the shuttered windows are always missing a couple of slats. The streets are always full of reflections, as the water never has anywhere to go. You pick your way carefully.

The immistakable echo of distant live music decided our bearing for us, and minutes later we were tapping away at the exuberant street corner band whose video clip I will upload when possible (don’t worry, I paid). The night drains the moisture from your body, though, and we were driven by necessity to another bar where a middle-aged blues band with a classic sound, scratchboard and all, held the audience in thrall. It was good – great, even – but our feet were itchy to see more of the city, and a night in New Orleans without at least a glancing visit to Bourbon Street is a wasted night.

Bourbon Street is legendary. And rightly so. It is jammed with partygoers, tourists, hawkers, dealers, theives, pimps, posers, gangsters and drunks. Neon bounces off the walls, the pools of unidentifiable providence that lick around the cobbles, and the glitzy attire of feathers, beads and sequins. This is one of the few areas in the USA (I’m given to understand) where street drinking is a-ok, and the result is pure mayhem. For some revellers, the street is the bar, and there’s no way they’re going to stay in no punk establishment. For others, well… let’s be honest, the commercialisation of the area is comprehensive, and there’s an awful lot of awful places. However, we found a diamond in the rough; a real oasis of classy amidst the bawling and the baulking.

It was a place called Friztle’s, an ostensibly German-run bar with a stage for a swinging jazz band – a blind pianist, a youthful trombonist, a tubby drummer, a placid bassist and a roguish trumpeteer. The music was brilliant, just brilliant. I couldn’t stop my hands, fingers, toes, head – well, my entire being – from tapping, clicking, stamping and swaying to the syncopations and cross-rhythms. I ordered a couple of drinks, and between them they saw me very much a man unafraid to be possessed by the musical elements. However, I still noticed that the lead trumpet and singer – easily 60 – had a sort of distance in his eyes. The cool sangfroid of professionalism? A weary disinterest? I didn’t want to believe that a man who could do such amazing things had grown tired of his own magic. It troubled me.

Back in Atlanta, I had been talking to Sara on a train when a beyond-middle-age black man sat near us turned to me.
‘You English?’ he said in a thick southern drawl. He then handed me a card. Veteran Care Services, United States Marines Corp. I turned it over in my hands. It’s easy to make jokes about the USA being gung-ho when you’re sat at home. Too easy, really. The man in front of me was the kind of guy who really paid the bill. He ticked off a list of locations on his hand – places he had been posted. The Philippines, France, Egypt, Iraq, Afghanistan, South Korea… on and on. I handed the card back wordlessly, but he didn’t need a prompt. ‘And you know what? I come back to th’ South… and nothin’s changed.’
‘Nothing?’ I asked.
‘Nothin’. Nothin’ here ever changes.’
He sat back in his seat and suddenly it was our stop. I didn’t get the chance to ask him what he meant.

His words returned as I tried to figure out the eyes of the man in front of me. And then suddenly a new song came around, and it was about an old street in New Orleans, and that was where the pupils came to life. And maybe it sounds silly, but I swear I could feel it this time around, the passion, the love of this place. I couldn’t presume to speculate and my conversation with him was about music, but I do wonder if, after Katrina, after all the ups and downs of the city’s chequered history, whether the jazzman in front of me wanted things to change – or not.

5 Responses to “When the jazzman testifies”

  1. 1 Lava 27/07/2009 at 2:01 am

    Nicely written. I’ve never been, but you have managed to capture the soul of New Orleans and the South, and concurrently galvanize me into planning a trip there.

    Keep having fun, Flip!

  2. 3 Arminas 27/07/2009 at 10:04 am

    Man, I want to go to New Orleans. I don’t even really like crowds that much, but street-level debauchery and revelry is always exciting!

    Was the USMC Vet referring to how the USA never really changes despite the countless duties he’s performed? Or perhaps it was more of a “home sweet home” kind of thing.

    (immistakable? unmistakable!)

  3. 4 maximumzero 27/07/2009 at 4:52 pm

    So are you coming back down for Mardi Gras?

    If you think Bourbon Street is crazy now you need to stop by on Fat Tuesday.

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