Montage of New Orleans images

So as it turns out, we never made it to Frenchman Street.

Every year, a few friends and I engage in a weekend of musical tourism, taking trips to cities which claim a vibrant live music scene and/or some historical interest. Past trips have included Memphis (Beale Street, Sun Records, Graceland) and Nashville (Downtown, Grand Ole Opry), among others. You know, famous places. 

This year, we decided to make our pilgrimage to New Orleans to get hammered and listen to jazz. From the moment we got into the cab at the airport, locals directed us to Frenchman street. According to pretty much everybody, this was the place to see jazz. The party was great, the music was fantastic, and you didn’t have to worry about the filth and violence of Bourbon Street. So sayeth the cabbie, the hotel concierge and the guy working at CVS.

But the problem was that our hotel was right in the middle of the French Quarter. Everything was a just a short walk away, from bars to museums to famous cemeteries – everything, that is, except for Frenchman Street. At over three miles away, it was unquestionably a cab ride proposition if we intended to drink seriously.

But there is something funny about the Quarter – as soon as you walk out the door it sort of sucks you in. They say it’s filthy, it’s loud, it’s dangerous and it’s a frat guy paradise, and this is all true. In fact it’s worse -- they forgot the hustlers, beggars, prostitutes, terrifying police, nameless strip clubs, awful drinks and ladies wearing ten-thousand dollar wedding rings passed out on the vomit covered sidewalk. At two in the morning, Bourbon Street looks like the gates of hell. A barbarous, indecent, place for squares and fools which should be razed to the ground. 

And tremendous fun, of course. There are things tucked away in the Quarter which exist nowhere else on earth: bizarre museums, 300 year old bars, absinthe, cocktails. We drank Hurricanes at Pat O’Brien’s, chased the ghost of Huey Long with a Gin Fizz at the Sazarac bar, and guzzled Bourbon Milk Punch at some seafood restaurant. We ate like kings.

And although we didn’t make it to Frenchman street, we saw all kinds of music. It’s absolutely everywhere in the quarter. Up and down Bourbon Street, cover bands play top-40 and Aerosmith -- “Sweet Emotion” in particular. Bass thumps out of the dance clubs, and dueling piano bars butcher “Bohemian Rhapsody.” On the street it’s disorienting, as the noise is leaking out of five or six bars simultaneously.

We found jazz in the Quarter at Preservation Hall. We had heard that it was an alcohol-free establishment with a $15.00 cover, but it turned out to be a two drink minimum. The first night it was a Dixieland act, with the trombone swoops I think of when someone says “New Orleans Jazz.” It was touristy, I suppose, with songs about the city and the inevitable “When the Saints Go Marching in.” Whatever; we were tourists and I like that song. Nobody in the band was under the age of 65, all were magnificently bad singers, and the drummer gave the distinct impression that in 1959 he had killed a man in a knife fight over a woman. They were having a great time, and it made me wonder why the Columbus Jazz Police have banned the trombone.

Night two the Hall featured big band. Well, little big band, and the place wasn’t set up for dancing, but still it was a new experience for me. The saxophone and clarinet (an instrument also banned by the CJP) harmonies were really pretty, and the singer was a weird silky time warp from the 1930’s. They also played “When the Saints,” and became positively irritated when the audience failed to sing along. Not the “I can’t hear you” shtick, more the “I will walk off this stage right now” shtick.

And street musicians – this is a busker's paradise. They come in every conceivable variety, from solo electric guitarists to full on bands with drum kits. Around Jackson Square, lone tubists competed with paint bucket ensembles and breakdancers' boom boxes. Saxophonists lurk in the shadows, while respectable bluegrass bands block traffic. Cacophony. 

But best of all were the street brass bands that periodically erupt on Bourbon Street corners in the evening. Ten to 15 pieces of 15-25 year olds, percussion and horns. It's hard to describe the power when all the players come in at once, with high wild harmonies screeching over the top. 

I have no doubts that Frenchman Street is wonderful, and I look forward to seeing it someday. But our purpose was to find music we don't ever see at home, and we pulled that off in spades. 

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