Listening to Jazz in New Orleans
A Musical Circle Around The French Quarter
… Suggested reading:
Buddy Bolden and the Last Days of Storyville (1998), Danny Barker
(1992), William E. Bissonnette
Jazz Fest Memories (1997), Michael P. Smith
Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans (1988), Louis Armstrong
Up from the Cradle of Jazz: New Orleans Music Since World War II (1992), Jason Berry
Everybody knows about New Orleans’s famous French Quarter, the Vieux Carre. It’s a boilermaker on Bourbon Street, a sweet sounding clarinet in Preservation Hall, a plate of beignets and a cup of chicory coffee at Caffe du Monde, topped off by an opulent jazz brunch at Court of Two Sisters. Justifiably proud of its unique narrow streets, iron railings and legendary bon-temps-roulez attitude, the Vieux Carre is a destination to which tourists flock from all over the world.
But the "kwottas" is only one small section of New Orleans. People who live here know that there is music and vibe in the Crescent City that does not involve "When The Saints Go Marchin’ In" played twice every forty-five minutes. Let us swing you in a musical circle, starting and ending near the Quarter, with detours to music venues in other neighborhoods, some old, some new, some jazz, and all blue.
Start by crossing Esplanade. On the other side of the street you are in the Marigny District. The Marigny is in some ways an extension of the French Quarter, in attitude if not in architecture. For music stop in at swank Snug Harbor (626 Frenchman, 504-949-0696). Eat a wonderful meal in the restaurant, then pay the cover and enter the music room to hear a great trio in a refined but casual atmosphere. Snug Harbor is not cheap but you get what you pay for here. You’ll hear traditional jazz, from stalwarts like Ellis Marsalis (Wynton’s father) and Charmaine Neville (Aaron’s daughter).
Later that night in the Marigny check out Cafe Brasil (Frenchman St. at Chartres, 504-949-0851). A younger, hipper crowd comes to listen to Latin, acoustic, reggae and DJ hip hop. It’s big, open, spacious, and cheaper than Snug Harbor. Art on the walls is by local artists (and is, of course, for sale). Cafe Brasil starts late and stays open late.
Leaving the Marigny keep moving away from the Quarter and you’ll end up in the Bywater District of the Upper 9th Ward. It’s called Bywater for good reason – the neighborhood sits in a low lying spot between the Mississippi River and Lake Ponchartrain. Ask a local to show you where Fats Domino still lives, then check out Vaughan’s Lounge (800 Lesseps, 504-947-5562) for local jazz. Thursday nights you’ll hear trumpet ace Kermit Ruffins – this is one of his home haunts and it’s a great place to see him without the weekend crowds Uptown. Play ping pong in a neighborhood we would call "safe for New Orleans" – this means it’s not particularly dangerous here, but if you want to be sure, keep your Lexus downtown and take a cab to Vaughan’s. The Bywater is coming up fast – better get here before the gentry takes it over like they’re doing in the Marigny.
Turn and head back to the Treme (tre-may). Here you’ll find one verified and one rumored great place. The verified spot is Ernie K-Doe’s Mother-In-Law Lounge (1500 N. Claiborn, 504-947-1078). Anyone over 45 is familiar with the Emperor Legendary (Ernie’s title in his own club) and his famous song "Mother-In-Law." The song plays automatically every twenty-five minutes on the jukebox. You will probably be able to recognize the Emp/Leg unless there happen to be two people in the club wearing red velvet jump suits with gold-lame-trimmed capes. Eat Antoinette K-Doe’s great food and be assured by all that her husband was not singing about her mother.
The rumored hot spot in the Treme is Joe’s Kozy Korner, on the corner of Villere and Ursulines. Joe seems to have no listed phone number, so we cannot vouch for the accuracy of neighbors’ claims that Sunday nights is Barbeque and live Brass Band night at the Kozy. Joe must have strange hours. People swear by his fabulous potato salad. If you ever get into Joe’s please let us know.
For guaranteed phat Brass Band mayhem we can recommend heading up Rampart St. until you get to Donna’s Bar and Grill (800 N. Rampart, 504-596-6914) on the corner of Rampart and St. Ann’s. Donna’s is a small but wonderful bar with good hamburgers and bottled beer. They manage to squeeze upwards of eight musicians into a space that would comfortably hold…oh, four. The "stage" is between you and the bathroom, but if you need to use the facilities the tubas will simply turn sideways to allow you to pass. This club is New Orleans bon temps at its ultra casual best. You pay a small cover and get cheap drinks, a trumpet playing ten feet from your face, and if you’re really lucky you might even get to hear 12-year-old phenom Trombone Shorty.
Now head along Esplanade towards City Park until you arrive in the terrific Mid City District. The New Orleans Fairgrounds is here, where the Jazz and Heritage Festival is held each Spring, and a swathe of venerable and stately homes lines both sides of Esplanade. Turn left onto Carrollton past the statue of General Beauregard pointing his rear end to the North, and soon you’ll see Mid City Lanes (4133 S. Carrollton, 504-482-3133). In this funky old bowling alley is Rock’n'Bowl. You can dance to great zydeco, swing or funk while you fan at that 10-pin. The food is strictly bowling alley (nachos and melted Velveeta), but the music, mixed crowd and knucklehead enthusiasm are pure New Orleans. It’s an expensive bowl, but a cheap night out.
You’ve come the long way around to Uptown. Uptown means Tipitina’s, Neville Brothers, St. Charles streetcar, great undiscovered restaurants, and the Maple Leaf Bar, four blocks up from Carrollton. The Maple Leaf (8316 Oak St., 504-866-LEAF) has a large stage, a courtyard in back and plenty of room to dance. It’s relatively pricey, but you’ll enjoy excellent local bands like Rebirth Brass Band on Tuesday nights and Walter "Wolfman" Washington on Saturdays. The Leaf used to be a chess club and there are still two tables in the back. There is no food. There is a restaurant next door but we wouldn’t bother. It’s probably not very good, maybe it’s not our favorite restaurant in the entire city of New Orleans, and anyway you might take our table.
Hop on the street car and ride halfway back towards the French Quarter. Get off in the Garden District. The Audubon Hotel (1225 St. Charles Ave., 504-568-1319) is a very different music venue – electronic music and dance party insanity. Sunday nights Yolanda’s "lush life" features an emphasis on "lush." This is a down-home hole in the wall which is owned by the proprietors of the upscale piano bar The Red Room up the street. If you want to share your club space with an elderly resident of the hotel who has wondered downstairs to drink a beer and listen to dueling chain saws, The Audubon Hotel is the place for you.
You’ve almost completed your circle. Hop back on the beautiful St. Charles streetcar or walk down tree-lined St. Charles Avenue until you come to the CBD (Central Business District). Go into The Howlin’ Wolf (828 S. Peters, 504-522-WOLF). Some claim the Wolf has the best acoustics in town. There are two bars so you don’t have to pause before inhaling. Local funk, blues and dance bands play here and so do national touring groups like De la Soul and Black Crows. This is more a concert venue than a club but it’ll be full of college students and young professionals who, just like you, have come for great sounding music in a safe neighborhood.
You made it. Cross Canal Street and you’re back in the French Quarter. What’s that you hear? "Oh When the Saints Go Marchin’ In…"