Posts Tagged 'New Orleans'

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.

Playing up a storm

Everyone knows. Everyone in the street bears the marks of Katrina. The streets themselves hum with it. This city was treated with contempt and left to drown. People thought it was the end of the Big Easy. I remember watching the news.

But not so.

I love this city more than anywhere I’ve yet been, and already I know my only regret is going to be that I didn’t see enough of it. Even writing this (on a tiny EEE PC donated by a nice Australian girl), I can feel the time burning down. But I have to write!

I arrived yesterday, crossing the huge causeway over the Ponchatraine, so vast that, unlike the English channel, you can’t see the other side. We had driven a long way, through three states, over miles of elevated wetlands road and straight through the middle of a vicious Mississippi thunderstorm. I could dedicate a post to the trip alone, but I shall have to settle for thanking Jon and his family profusely.

The place we rolled up to, India House, was somewhere I immediately felt at home. Open only to students and foreign travellers, the hostel is a bohemian, carefree oasis of communal lounging and pheremones. As I trundled up the steps a man strumming away on a guitar bid me hello with all the sincerity of an old friend. The House is literally one of the coolest places I have ever been.

I had a definite objective. It was seven thirty pm and I had nightlife to sample. I ran into a Londoner, Rich, and the aforementioned sheila, Bree. They took me under their wing and we set off on foot into the French Quarter.

If you’ve not been, it’s everything you’ve heard and more. Not three minutes into the achingly beautiful streets and we’re listening to an energetic street band playing superbly. I have videos of a lot of this stuff btw, but that will have to wait until I have more time.

I could write about the French Quarter for a long time. It is absolutely unique, like nowhere I’ve been before. Men and women stand on balconies showering the throbbing street below with bead necklaces whilst live music pulses, swings, and blasts through the stifling night air. The place frequently smells awful, there are about a hundred strip clubs, you can’t move without ramming into someone else and everyone seems either crazy, drunk, lost, or all three.

It’s marvellous.

We checked out a few places and saw some good acts, but eventually found an awesome place with a traditional live jazz band of astonishing skill. In the interval, I approached the trombonist(?). I was stunned to find that he had only played with the group once before. I asked him how he did it.

‘This music… this music is a language, you know?’ he said, eyes shining and drink flailing in his hand. ‘If you speak it, it doesn’t matter, you can just play. I know some songs that Charlie doesn’t know, he knows some that I don’t know, but it’s a language, that’s the only way I can describe it!’ He swung past me to get back to the stage and then winked over his shoulder with a grin. ‘Plus, it’s a great way to meet cute girls, yeah?’

I later found out he had been there two years with no job, and didn’t often get a cut of the jar. He just plays every night for the love of music and free drinks. Some people seem to be able to find completely different ways of living.

I could go on. There’s so much to say! But I need to go. I just don’t have enough time, and I want to get to cafe du monde for a beignet.

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