In the 19th century, slaves would gather on Sundays to play drums, dance and sing in Congo Square — one of the only places in the New World where they were allowed to do so. It’s lucky they were. Because those dark, sensual rhythms of Africa collided head on with the bright sounds of Europe and created something that had never been heard before: jazz — that seminal American art form, which has inspired countless generations and spread around the world.
But this isn’t corduroy-wearing, head-nodding, polite jazz. New Orleans jazz has bite and pop. It sweeps you off your feet and makes you jump and clap and sing along. The great Louis Armstrong, who grew up here, said: “What we play is life.” Music in New Orleans is more than just songs. Every note is imbued with heart and history, soul and a joyful celebration.
I wander the narrow cobbled streets of the French Quarter, with its cast-iron balconies draped with flowers, and find brass bands, a woman playing spoons, a fortune teller, the scent of freshly baked beignets and the whistle of Mississippi steamers on the air. New Orleans is unlike anywhere else in the country. There’s a sensuality here, something carnal. This is a place where music, food and fun still rule.
The heart of it is Bourbon Street, a raucous, 13-block, nonstop street party that’s like speed-dating for gig-goers — the only place in America where you can legally be naked and drunk in public at the same time. I hop between rock, pop, blues and jazz as scantily clad dancers wiggle in doorways and howling crowds sip fishbowl-size cocktails that glow luminous green in the dark. It’s like being at a festival dedicated to debauchery. The angel on my shoulder is appalled; the devil orders another round.
That’s the party. But the real New Orleans is elsewhere. It’s at Frenchmen Street, where the locals go for smaller crowds, better music and more clothes. It’s at Commander’s Palace every Sunday, for a live jazz brunch surrounded by blue blazers and old Southern mansions. It’s the voodoo drums in the dark alleys, the blind piano player with fingers so fast I could have sworn they started to smoke.
It’s also at Preservation Hall, which was set up in 1961 with the express purpose of preserving New Orleans jazz. Inside, a handful of people squeeze into a space no bigger than my front room, with peeling paint, broken picture frames, a few old sofas, and cushions on the floor. But then the music starts. Seven old men in dark suits shout out lyrics and stand up for solos; there’s a double bass, horns and a beat. No amplification, no lighting, but it’s one of the best gigs I’ve ever seen.
At the end of my trip, I find myself wandering the streets of the French Quarter again, when I hear some music start up in the distance: brassy trombone, pulsing tuba, snare drum snapping to the beat. I follow my ears until I find them: nine teenage boys next to a market stall, an old paint bucket for tips, playing like their lives depend on every note. Raw passion and energy, but effortless at the same time, like they’re spilling their souls onto the streets. Maybe they are. Like Louis Armstrong said, New Orleans is about more than just jazz, it’s the music of life itself.
Catch some traditional Cajun music in the bayous surrounding the city: The Blue Moon Saloon & Guesthouse in Lafayette holds a jam session every Wednesday night.
The ultimate musical road trip, linking New Orleans, Memphis and Nashville in a 1,500-mile triangle. Highlights include travelling The Blues Highway; listening to Zydeco music in the swamps of the Atchafalaya Basin; visiting Alabama’s Muscle Shoals studio; checking out Tupelo, Elvis’s birthplace; and taking in the grave of harmonica whizz Sonny Boy Williamson in Jackson, Tennessee.
Published in the June 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)