In-Depth: New Orleans – Music In The Crescent

New Orleans - Music In The Crescent
September’s in-depth feature finds author and music journalist Garth Cartwright celebrating the musical heritage of the great American city of New Orleans.
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New Orleans goes under many names: The Crescent City, The Big Easy, The Birthplace Of Jazz, Home Of The Blues, The City That Care Forgot, Nawlins, NOLA. One thing no one can deny about the historic city in south-eastern Louisiana that straddles the Mississippi river is that it lacks culture, flavour and character. And nothing demonstrates this more fiercely than the city’s music.

At the time of writing, New Orleans’ foremost rapper Lil Wayne sits high in album charts across the world, while I’ve just returned from my first visit to the Crescent City in more than a decade. Six years on from when Hurricane Katrina came close to destroying the world’s most fabled music city, New Orleans has – to a large degree – rebuilt itself and remains a cultural city second to none and, without a doubt, the greatest live music city on earth. At the end of this feature I’ll list some of the music venues, restaurants and neighbourhoods that I explored while there. But first, a musical history of the city that truly can claim to be the one that care forgot.

People travel to New Orleans for many reasons – to observe the glorious French Quarter architecture, to revel in the street party culture of Bourbon St, to bathe in the city’s mysterious, gothic ambience, explore its historic cemeteries and check out its voodoo churches, to feast on its exemplary Creole cuisine, even to watch its celebrated football team the Saints – but the major reason New Orleans is visited and loved like few other cities anywhere is its music. For no city anywhere has given the world a wealth of music like New Orleans.

Critically acclaimed HBO TV series Treme uses the city’s rich musical undercurrents as a way of building narratives about the city and its inhabitants – veteran jazz musicians, youthful hopefuls from across the US and Europe who have come to play on the streets and cop the city’s groove, Mardi Gras Indians whose life is focused on their annual parades, top funk players and fine soul singers, DJs and promoters and writers, all fiercely loyal to their city and its music. Watching Treme we see how the musicians and their associates struggle to survive in this chaotic, often inspired, sometimes brutal, city. Treme’s scriptwriters understand that New Orleans offers a magical hold on music lovers and the series is packed with classic recordings stretching across almost a century. With this in-depth feature I hope to look at the myriad music forms that have come out of New Orleans and lead the listener towards some of the world’s greatest musicians.

One thing no one can argue about is that New Orleans is the city where jazz arose from. Exactly how and why jazz sprang up from this swampy city has been and will continue to be endlessly debated amongst fans and academics but one thing is sure: by the dawn of the 20th century a hot new sound was emerging out of the city’s black neighbourhoods. Cornet player Buddy Bolden led the city’s first great jazz band and his ability to blow loud and funky blues – as the early music was called, ‘jazz’ being a tag applied when the sound travelled to Chicago – made him locally famous and the city’s black citizens flocked to his dances. Bolden was a local hero and enjoyed all the trappings that came with being a ghetto superstar. So much so he suffered a complete mental collapse in 1907 and spent the last decades of his life in an insane institution, never to record.

Jelly Roll Morton A great pioneering jazz musician who did record was pianist Jelly Roll Morton. Morton, a flamboyant Creole (New Orleans’ citizens who claimed mixed French, African and Indian ancestry), liked to claim he invented jazz. This was untrue as no one musician invented the genre. But he did write the first published jazz tune, Jelly Roll Blues, in 1915 and his remarkable skills as a pianist, composer and self-promoter are well known. Leading folklorist Alan Lomax was so impressed by Morton when he met the down-on-his-luck musician in a shabby Washington DC bar in 1938, he recorded hours of Morton talking about his life and how jazz took shape in the Storyville district of New Orleans’ brothels for the Library Of Congress and, in 1950, published Mister Jelly Roll, an astonishing oral autobiography that remains in print (and a great read).

While there are many compilations of Morton’s music available today, serious fans should consider investing in the 2005 eight-CD box set The Complete Library Of Congress Recordings (Rounder) that presents both Morton the raconteur and master pianist. This box won two Grammys and saw Morton honoured with the Lifetime Achievement Award. A pity that Jelly Roll wasn’t better respected during his lifetime (he died largely forgotten in poverty in 1941 aged – it is thought – 56) but his music and influence lives on: listening to Morton today you hear all the qualities that make New Orleans’ music magical: the wild improvisation and fiery tempos, the extraordinary technical skills, the wit and imagination, the desire to make people dance and to celebrate a sexuality both earthy and lewd (this is, of course, music that took shape in bordellos – or ‘sporting houses’ as they were then called – while Victorian morality ruled).

Jelly Roll Morton - Complete Library of Congress Recordings Morton liked to describe his music as possessing a “Spanish tinge” by which he meant a Latin influence: back then New Orleans maintained strong connections with Haiti, Cuba, Jamaica and other Caribbean islands. Haitians had overthrown the nation’s French slave owners in 1804 and since then practised music and religion rooted in African tradition (hence ‘voodoo’) while Cuba had been much more lenient than the US in allowing its slaves to dance, sing and follow traditional African religious practices.

Catholic New Orleans – initially colonised by the Spanish and then the French – had allowed the slaves to gather and dance in Congo Square. Many immigrants from these states settled in New Orleans and absorbed a variety of African music and dance forms alongside French opera and military marching bands, the rise of spirituals in black churches and the guttural work songs of the gangs that built the levees, the music of those from England, Ireland, Italy and the Balkans, Arabic and Jewish immigrants. These were all whipped together through the new technologies that the US led the world in, the excitement of electricity and moving pictures and recordings, all these influences helped shape a dynamic cultural flux out of which grew a music that first exploded across the USA then resonated across the world.

American essayist Michael Ventura writes, “New Orleans was unique in the south in more ways than one. It was the largest city and an important port through which the whole world passed. Until the Louisiana Purchase it was a Spanish and French city with a large population of ‘free people of color’ (33 % of its population in 1788, 25 % in 1810). So it was the only major city in the United States that was not Anglo-Saxon and not Protestant, and not even all white. Here was the same brand of Catholicism that had lived easily with African metaphysics in the West Indies. And, as I’ve said, believers in Voodoo usually proclaim themselves good Catholics.”

Louis Armstrong (trumpet, vocals) performing Basin Street Blues, live in Sydney, Australia in March 1963 with Trummy Young (trombone), Joe Darensbourg (clarinet), Billy Kyle (piano), Arvell Shaw (Bass) and Danny Barcelona (drums)

If Bolden and Morton were the great pioneers of New Orleans music it was Louis Armstrong who would be the city’s first superstar. Armstrong is, arguably, the most influential and beloved American musician of the last century, his genius as a trumpet player, vocalist and entertainer taking jazz to the hugest possible audience. Before Armstrong, New Orleans musicians could be local stars and, as jazz spread, find work in black communities in Chicago, St Louis, New York, Kansas City and Los Angeles. Today Armstrong is too often remembered as the elderly crooner of What A Wonderful World. Magnificent as this hit is it should not distract from how radical and breathtakingly new Armstrong was as a musician from the 1920s-1940s.

Armstrong’s life story is exceptional – born into abject poverty, he rose to become one of the world’s most famous and loved personalities while always maintaining his generosity and dignity – yet he was not the only great New Orleans jazz musician to make an impact on the world. As jazz gained in international popularity, the likes of clarinettist Sidney Bechet, pianists Clarence Williams and Bunk Johnson, trombonist Kid Ory, clarinet-saxophone player Johnny Dodds, trumpeter Henry ‘Red’ Allen and banjoist Johnny St Cyr alongside many others all made a huge impression: there is a statue of Bechet in Paris, so impressed were the French by this mercurial Creole. By the 1930s New Orleans had become internationally famous as the first city of jazz – something that has never faded even though the likes of Chicago and New York have long proved to be much more potent centres for modern jazz.

Louis Armstrong (trumpet, vocals) performing Now You Has Jazz, live in Sydney, Australia in March 1963 with Trummy Young (trombone), Joe Darensbourg (clarinet), Billy Kyle (piano), Arvell Shaw (Bass) and Danny Barcelona (drums)

The exodus of jazz musicians from New Orleans following Armstrong’s success – New Orleans lacked a music industry to match those in larger cities and the South’s brutal, racist Jim Crow laws encouraged flight – meant the city lapsed into something of a musical backwater just as New Orleans musicians became internationally famous. Of course, the Crescent City with its huge African American population would never stop making music and the city’s marching bands – neighbourhood brass bands that played festivities and jazz funerals – and the Mardi Gras Indians have kept indigenous musical traditions alive to this day.

Such major blues musicians as Big Joe Williams (Baby Please Don’t Go) and Lonnie Johnson (Tomorrow Night) both developed their early styles playing New Orleans clubs and by the mid-1940s a rough and tumble, boogie woogie form of rhythm and blues had taken shape in the city’s black bars and clubs. Where earlier New Orleans pianists such as Jelly Roll Morton and Buddy Christian had played jazz with remarkable technical skill, a new generation of pianists brought a more slangy, blues-flavoured music that continued Buddy Bolden’s tradition of making audiences dance. Such notable pianists as Champion Jack Dupree, Tuts Washington, Archibald and Professor Longhair established this highly distinctive form of New Orleans piano – one that is practised today by such Big Easy legends as Dr John, Allen Toussaint and Henry Butler.

Big Joe Williams performing Baby Please Don’t Go

New Orleans has always been a place to party, its looser interpretation of American Puritan ethics making it a city full of bars and clubs, and such places thrived on live musicians who could make customers drink and dance. Bandleaders Paul Gayten and Dave Bartholemew ruled New Orleans clubs, both scoring local and national hits with uptempo material and ballads – Bartholemew’s late-1940s R&B hits Country Boy and The Monkey were proto-rap classics, demonstrating a funky groove and wit characteristic of New Orleans music over the decades. Both bandleaders discovered and encouraged local talent – with Bartholemew discovering the man who would become the city’s biggest star since Louis Armstrong: Fats Domino.

Roy Brown Before I start on Fats let’s rewind to the birth of post-war New Orleans R&B. Roy Brown, a gifted singer born in New Orleans who had worked in California and Texas before returning home, cut his own composition Good Rocking Tonight in 1947. It was an immediate local hit and would soon go on to become an international call to arms when Elvis Presley recorded it in 1954. Brown’s success demonstrated that the Crescent City was home to cutting edge rhythm and blues artists and several independent labels sprang up to record the local talent. Amongst the now legendary R&B stars to cut records in New Orleans following Brown’s success were Guitar Slim (The Things I Used To Do), Earl King (These Lonely Lonely Nights), Shirley & Lee (Let The Good Times Roll),  Smiley Lewis (You Keep A Knockin’), Sugar Boy & His Cane Cutters (Jock-A-Mo) and Huey ‘Piano’ Smith (Don’t You Just Know It).

Certain of these exuberant R&B anthems crossed into the pop charts. The likes of Atlantic Records  – then a maverick, if very professional New York-based independent label – and Los Angeles’ Imperial Records – initially a blues and Mexican music label – began signing Big Easy artists and cutting sessions at the city’s one recording studio, Cosimo Matassa’s J&M Recording Studio. Cosimo had set up the studio at the back of his family’s shop on Rampart St in 1945 and for the next three decades he would be involved in recording much of the greatest New Orleans music.

The biggest star of all of New Orleans’ pioneering R&B artists was the aforementioned Antoine ‘Fats’ Domino. Antoine Domino was raised in the Lower 9th Ward, the historic black New Orleans neighbourhood where many famous musicians have risen from, and as a teenager developed into a popular performer. In December 1949 Bartholemew was tipped off about the youth and went to see him perform at the Hideaway Club with Lew Chudd, owner of Imperial Records. Impressed, Chudd signed Domino and Bartholemew recorded eight songs with him at Cosimo Matassa’s J&M Studio. Fats’ session blended jump-blues with a Dixieland flavour and his gently seductive voice (he sang in a slurring Creole accent) and pumping piano (he played triplets which gave a distinctive feel to his records) scored immediately with black Americans; his debut 78, The Fat Man (a rewrite of Junkers Blues: a New Orleans piano anthem about heroin addiction), proving a big R&B hit.

Fats Domino performing Ain’t That A Shame in 1955.

Fats’ next two sessions didn’t produce any hits but Bartholemew persevered with Domino and in 1951 Fats began hitting the R&B charts regularly. In 1955 he started selling to white teenagers and began being seen as a pioneer of ‘rock & roll’ – not bad for a musician who never changed his sound or image! Jamaicans loved Fats – they listened to New Orleans radio – and the sound he and Bartholemew pioneered with its laidback groove, big beat and shuffling rhythm would prove very influential upon Jamaican music. Over the next two decades Domino would go on to sell millions of singles (and a good number of albums).

Some of his most famous songs include Blueberry Hill, Ain’t That A Shame, I’m Walkin’, Blue Monday, The Big Beat, I’m Ready, I Want To Walk You Home, I’m Gonna Be A Wheel Someday, Walking To New Orleans and My Blue Heaven. His last US hit, in 1968, was Lady Madonna, a New Orleans-flavoured interpretation of the Lennon-McCartney song. By then popular black and white music was moving in different directions but in 1950, as the USA began slowly shaking off the chains of segregation, the sound of the Crescent City helped influence how rock and soul would take shape.

Various Artists - The Cosimo Matassa Story The rise of New Orleans R&B from the late-1940s to late-1950s is well documented across two of Proper Records’ 4-CD box sets – the first, Getting’ Funky: The Birth Of New Orleans R&B, covers many of the pioneering artists I’ve discussed. The second, The Cosimo Matassa Story, also starts in the late-1940s with Batholemew, Fats, Guitar Slim and other pioneers. It then shifts gears to look at the huge array of talent who recorded at Cosimo’s over the 1950s: Little Richard, although from Georgia, cut his greatest hits here; Lloyd Price scaled the world’s charts with his roaring R&B anthems; The Hawketts, featuring a 16-year old Art Neville on lead vocals and keyboards, sing the Crescent City’s party anthem Mardi Gras Mambo; Huey ‘Piano’ Smith cut his timeless hits here; a teenage Cajun singer and songwriter, Bobby Charles, cut See You Later, Alligator, so providing rock ‘n’ roll with one of its most enduring anthems. A young Mac Rebennac played both guitar and/or piano on many of these recordings – Mac would follow many of the 1950s generation of New Orleans musicians to Los Angeles in the 1960s. There they would play on hits by Sonny & Cher and Phil Spector while Mac would reinvent himself as Dr John, the voodoo rock star whose illustrious career has seen him issue excellent albums across five decades.

Allen ToussaintAs the city’s R&B pioneers either slowed down and enjoyed their wealth or shifted to Los Angeles, a new generation of New Orleans talent came through. These musicians tended to share one thing in common: almost all were produced by Allen Toussaint, the extremely gifted pianist-songwriter-arranger-producer. Toussaint, born in New Orleans in 1938, first came to prominence in the 1950s as pianist for Shirley & Lee. The duo’s producer, Dave Bartholemew, began employing Toussaint as a studio pianist – he even played on Fats Domino sessions when Fats was on tour! Toussaint then joined the emergent Minit label as a producer and scored his first hit with Jessie Hill’s Ooh Poo Pah Doo in 1960. This celebratory slice of proto-funk hinted at Toussaint’s talents and soon he was securing hits for many other local artists.

The early-1960s were to prove a golden age for New Orleans music as hit after hit came out – think of such classics as Irma Thomas (the undisputed Soul Queen of New Orleans) singing Take A Look, Time Is On My Side and Ruler Of My Heart; Lee Dorsey scoring with Ride Your Poney, Ya Ya, Working In A Coal Mine and Holy Cow; Aaron Neville’s sonorous Tell It Like It Is and Hercules; Ernie K Doe’s Mother In Law and Here Come The Girls (used for a UK TV ad campaign in 2010 so making the song popular again); Bennie Spellman’s Fortune Teller and Lipstick Traces (On A Cigarette); Alvin Robinson’s Down Home Girl and Something You Got; The Dixie Cups knocked The Beatles off the US No 1 slot in 1964 with Chapel Of Love and took New Orleans street chant Iko Iko into the charts. Many of these songs were then covered by British rock bands – The Rolling Stones, The Who and The Yardbirds being three of the most prominent – and even today these tunes possess a timeless quality. That Toussaint had a hand in either writing or producing a lot of these hits suggests what a huge talent this rather reserved musician possesses.

Eddie Bo - In The Pocket With (Vampisoul) The late Eddie Bo, while never matching Toussaint’s success, was also a brilliant pianist, songwriter and producer, releasing many fine 45s under many guises – and while few of his tunes broke out of New Orleans to wider audiences, they have remained very influential with his funkiest songs being sampled by rap acts (Pass The Hatchet in particular). Bo’s tunes turn up on almost every New Orleans compilation these days – especially those focusing on the city’s funk – and Spanish label Vampisoul issued a storming compilation of Bo recordings in 2009 called In The Pocket With .

Speaking of funk – and no city in the world has produced so much fabulously down ‘n’ dirty, hot ‘n’ greasy funk as New Orleans – by the late-1960s the Big Easy’s funkiest band ever were taking shape: The Meters. Led by Art Neville on keyboards and featuring George Porter on bass, Zigaboo Modeliste on guitar and Leo Nocentelli on drums, The Meters cut a stunning series of hit instrumental funk tracks: Cissy Strut, Ease Back, Look-Ka Py Py and Sophisticated Sissy. Even today these tunes sound futuristic, so liquid is the playing, so fresh and forward the groove, so organic the execution. The Rolling Stones took The Meters on tour, they backed Dr John, Paul McCartney, LaBelle, Frankie Miller and Robert Palmer in the studio (with Toussaint at the controls) and across the music world they were acclaimed for their versatility and supple funk. Yet they never managed to sell serious numbers of albums. Art Neville reshaped the band into The Neville Brothers, pulling in vocalist Aaron with his golden voice and brothers Charles and Cyril. The Neville Brothers won a wide audience in 1989 with the Daniel Lanois-produced album Yellow Moon and since then Aaron has gone on to enjoy a successful solo album with his astonishing voice.

The Meters performing Look-Ka Py Py and Jungle Man as part of Dr John’s New Orleans Swamp, Soundstage (WTTW Chicago, 1974), broadcast by Videoarts Japan.

The 1970s in many ways represented a high point for New Orleans music as the freedom to create album-length works saw two Mardi Gras Indian troupes enter the studio to make hugely influential albums. The Wild Magnolias, working with gifted keyboardist Willie Tee, cut two superb albums in 1974 and 1975 (reissued on double CD as They Call Us Wild) so showcasing the Mardi Gras anthems that the Indians loved to sing and chant, amongst sophisticated funk arrangements. Toussaint took notice and recorded another Indian troupe, The Wild Tchoupitoulas, in 1976 with The Meters backing and various Neville brothers adding harmonies. At the same time the New Orleans brass bands were finally getting recognition beyond the neighbourhoods they traditionally plied their trade in and the likes of The Dirty Dozen Brass Band, The Rebirth Brass Band, The Hot 8 Brass Band – just three of the more well known names – have all gone on to enjoy international careers, their mix of bright brass and street jazz and funk anthems making them great music to party to.

The Wild Magnolias - They Call Us Wild Voodoo Soul The Wild Tchoupitoulas

New Orleans funk has proved remarkably popular over recent decades, both with collectors, producers and dance fans. There are lots of good funk compilations out but a few worth noting are New Orleans Funk Experience and Voodoo Soul: Deep & Dirty New Orleans Funk alongside two high quality New Orleans Funk compilations on Soul Jazz Records. Essentially, any compilation with Eddie Bo and The Meters on promises a good time!

Late 1970s disco hit New Orleans R&B hard and Allen Toussaint’s remarkable string of hits ended: ironically, his biggest hits came when he produced out-of-town black female trio LaBelle with Lady Marmalade (a worldwide no.1), then when Glen Campbell covered Toussaint’s song Southern Nights – the title track of Allen’s superb 1975 solo album. Toussaint would enter semi-retirement until Hurricane Katrina destroyed his studio, the shock of this pushed Toussaint to return to performing and recording and his superb 2009 instrumental album The Bright Mississippi demonstrated that he too was a master New Orleans pianist.

While disco killed off New Orleans as an R&B hit mecca, punk also ended the visit of white rockers wanting a Crescent City groove. That is until Willy DeVille, who rose to fame leading Mink DeVille from infamous New York punk club CBGBs, settled in the city in 1989 and went on to record and tour with NOLA musicians – it was DeVille who brought Eddie Bo and The Wild Magnolias to a broad European audience. Ace Records are looking to reissue all of DeVille’s New Orleans recordings on one CD in 2012 – look out for it as these are legendary sessions.

What rose out of The Lower 9th Ward to replace R&B was a form of New Orleans rap called bounce. This loud party music enjoyed great local popularity but only won national – and international – audiences when NO rappers adopted a gangsta rap persona: New Orleans has long boasted a brutal murder rate (linked to crack cocaine and the street gangs who deal it) and the likes of Master P, Lil Wayne and Juvenile have all sold huge numbers of albums. Local sludge metal bands Crowbar, Acid Bath and Eyehategod have all won strong followings but their sound is beyond the focus of this feature.

Mahalia Jackson Other notable New Orleans musicians I have yet to mention include Mahalia Jackson, the greatest gospel singer ever, and Louis Prima, the jazz comedian who lives on to new generations of children as the voice of King Louie in The Jungle Book. Both were born and raised in the Crescent City yet found success in northern cities. Fans of New Orleans R&B must check out the following phenomenal talents who all stayed in the Big Easy: blind blues guitar genius Snooks Eaglin, one eyed blues piano maverick James Booker and supple soul crooner Johnny Adams – all sadly now passed away. New Orleans jazz enjoyed a huge revival of creativity in the 1980s when Wynton and Branford Marsalis broke through to wide audiences. Following them came Harry Connick Jr, a handsome youth who played piano and crooned to great popular effect. Less famous but also of note are versatile jazz saxophonist Donald Harrison, trumpeter Nicholas Payton and the supremely gifted pianist Henry Butler. The likes of Galactic, Kermit Ruffins and Trombone Shorty have all taken elements of classic New Orleans funk and jazz back to the streets while keeping it contemporary; guitarist Kenny Neal plays fresh blues.

One thing’s for sure, New Orleans never stops producing immensely talented musicians.

Words: Garth Cartwright

To celebrate the 110th anniversary of Louis Armstrong’s birth, the London Jazz Festival is screening the European premiere of Louis – a brand new silent film accompanied by live music written by Wynton Marsalis and played by an all-star jazz orchestra led by Wycliffe Gordon – on the 13th November 2011 at the Barbican.

Shot by Academy Award-winning cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond and directed by Dan Pritzker, the Charlie Chaplin-inspired film features a six-year-old Louis Armstrong as he “navigates the colourful intricacies of life in downtown New Orleans in 1907 – what was then America’s bawdiest, most notorious, most dangerous city”.

******** NEW ORLEANS UPDATE********

NEW ORLEANS 2011: Live Music Mecca

Having just returned from New Orleans I can confirm that no city in the world matches New Orleans for the variety and quality of its live music. Just walking down the street you encounter all kinds of music and, for those newly arrived and trying to find their feet, this is a good way of getting a feel for the city.

Walk up Canal St and, if fortunate, you will find a large (16-piece when I caught them), youthful brass band playing the fierce funky jazz that is indigenous to the city on the corner of Canal and Chartres St. The band were roaring, spilling off the sidewalk onto the road, and certain locals were dancing on the street. At times traffic got blocked as players and listeners came together. One trumpeter would occasionally step out with a small cardboard box for tips but, beyond that, this was free street music.

Turning into Chartres or Royal St – thus entering the fabled French Quarter – will lead you to more fine buskers. Any day you should find fine duos, trios and quartets playing swinging traditional jazz with banjos and brass instruments. Many of these players are veterans with superb musical skills who also play bars and restaurants. If you like what you hear then drop a tip in the box. Anyone recall Playing For Change’s hit version of Stand By Me that featured a blind black American street singer? That singer is Grandpa Elliott and he can still be found on the corner of Royal and Toulouse, playing harmonica and singing. He has a beautiful voice and a wonderful presence and the international fame of Playing For Change has not changed this blues Buddha.

The notorious Bourbon St is packed with clubs and bars and from dusk ‘til dawn it is awash with stag parties and other visitors intent on getting as trashed as possible. Initially most of the bars feature DJs blaring loud rock/rap/R&B or cover bands doing classic rock but further down, as the tourist masses begin to thin, there are a handful of bars with good free music. Fritzel’s European Jazz Pub was opened by an Austrian fan of New Orleans jazz in 1969 and continues to put on good local musicians.

Just off the corner of Bourbon St and St Peter St is the legendary Preservation Hall where top level traditional jazz bands play seven nights a week in sparse surroundings. Entry is $12 which is a lot for New Orleans but the Preservation Hall experience is worth it for fans of dynamic Dixieland jazz.

Down at Jackson Square right by the levee that stops the Mississippi River from flooding the French Quarter, there is a spot where street dancers perform with great wit and skill while buskers wander amongst the tourists. I recommend you take a seat in the historic Café Du Monde, order café latte and beignets (sugar-coated doughnuts baked on the premises: fresh and tasty) and watch the musicians who pass by to serenade the tourist masses.

Walking out of The French Quarter and heading east you quickly come to Frenchman St. Apparently Jelly Roll Morton was born here and today, appropriately, a plethora of bars featuring live music exist. Some charge a $5 or $10 cover – this is reasonable as venues such as D.B.A feature major local funk and rock bands while Snug Harbour is the city’s premier jazz club with veteran pianist Ellis Marsalis on stage most Thursdays. Frenchman has many dive bars that require only that you buy a drink upon entry and, if enjoying the music, tip the band (or buy their CD).

My favourite free venue is The Spotted Cat which had consistently fine bands on – a rising star who regularly plays there is Meschiya Lake and her band the Little Big Horns. Lake is a heavily tattooed young woman who sings old blues and jazz with a contemporary feel and stands as a figurehead of sorts to an anti-corporate music culture and lifestyle that has seen New Orleans become a beacon of sorts to youths from across the US who choose to squat and busk to survive. These crusty kids can sometimes be found busking on Frenchman, playing saws and banjos and string basses and accordions. While they infuriate some of the locals – who are certain the youth are trustafarians slumming it – they do add more good music to the mix.

Heading westwards from Canal St you enter the Warehouse District where large, former warehouses, now offer clubs and live music. The best of these is The Howlin’ Wolf where great local and touring bands play on either the large or small stage. Every Sunday The Hot 8 Brass Band rock the small stage for $8 – as they are one of the city’s top brass bands this is a bargain. The Wolf was home to this year’s Ponderossa Stomp festival: the annual New Orleans festival celebrates classic blues, soul, garage rock and roots music (zydeco, country etc.) over two long (7.30 pm – 3.30 am) nights and is a veritable musical feast.

All the aforementioned music experiences are within walking distance – I stayed in the Marriott on Canal which provided not only fine hospitality but an excellent location for heading east or west. Certain key venues need transport to get to (taxis are plentiful and, for the most part, reasonable) – the Maple Leaf Bar in Uptown once hosted James Booker and now has the likes of Walter ‘Wolfman’ Washington and other top local players – including noted British pianist Jon Cleary.

Tipitina’s in Uptown might just be the most celebrated music venue in New Orleans and local heroes such as The Neville Brothers and Allen Toussaint are known to play here.

In the historic African American neighbourhood of Treme the Candlelight Lounge hosts live music including the Treme Brass Band every Wednesday – many regard the Treme Brass Band as the best of the city’s traditional jazz brass bands and their live performances are legendary. Generally a $10 cover gets you into these venues (unless national name artists are playing).

New Orleans is not simply a great city for music – it is one of the world’s finest metropolises for food. The blend of cultures that established New Orleans means there are all manner of great restaurants serving seafood, Creole and Cajun food. A personal favourite for superb Creole cooking is Oliver’s on Decatur St. This family-run establishment is so good that connoisseurs internationally order their products. Fancy a jazz brunch to start the day? The Court Of Two Sisters on Royal St serves a superb buffet with live traditional jazz in its garden. Or if wanting something simpler and more soul food oriented, eat at Mother’s on Poydras St – Mother’s claims its baked ham is the world’s finest and who am I to disagree?

One thing only is guaranteed about New Orleans: there is more great music and food happening there at any given time than you can ever hope to experience. Turn up, check out what’s on and enjoy yourself. The Big Easy offers more pleasure than any other city I can think of.

Garth Cartwright travelled to New Orleans as a guest of the Louisiana Tourist Board and stayed at the Marriott Hotel on Canal St.

Words: Garth Cartwright