TAKE A THREE-DAY MUSICAL TOUR OF THE CRESCENT CITY
New Orleans is a city with perfect pitch. Our affair with music and dance began in 18th century ballrooms, at the old French Opera House, with tribal rhythms and rituals of slaves in Congo Square (now the site of Louis Armstrong Park).
For 300 years, music has reverberated throughout the city, constant as the river, diverse as the gumbo of people who settled here.
The 2009 Grammy Awards were an indication of just how strong, how totally entertaining are the sounds of the city of New Orleans. Nearly a dozen ‘Grammies’ were presented to native Orleanians …awards for jazz, Cajun, Zydeo, rhythm and blues, for rock, rap and pop.
Finding great music and dance here is as easy as getting a Hurricane on Bourbon Street.
Before you set out, check on the festivals of the city, where live music will always be the highlight. There’s an event schedule at the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau, 2020 St. Charles Avenue, or the French Quarter location at 529 St. Ann Street. (Phone: 504-1-800-503 NOLA.) Pick up a copy of Off Beat, a monthly music magazine, and GAMBIT, a very popular weekly alternative paper heavy on entertainment news.
And get into the groove before you arrive: log on the internet to listener-supported local radio station WWOZ, 90.7FM, a mix of just about every conceivable sound and dedicated to the musical heritage of the city.
Start the first day of your musical journey with an old New Orleans traditional breakfast …alfresco on hot, crusty beignets and a cup of delicious café au lait. The CAFÉ DU MONDE at the French Market, opposite Jackson Square, is open 24/7. No matter how early or late you arrive, you’ll have lots of company on the terrace. You may catch some early street performers or just enjoy watching the rhythms of the passing crowds, carriages and market vendors.
Get acquainted with a few of the city’s 17 different historic neighborhoods with a city tour. The French Quarter, the Faubourg Marigny and the Faubourg Treme (home to Storyville, and one of the oldest black neighborhoods in the U.S.) in particular have nurtured New Orleans music notables.
STORYVILLE is the area known for the old benevolent society sites, and the homes and haunts of early masters like Buddy Bolden, Kid Ory, Louis Armstrong, Jellyroll Morton and King Oliver.
For lunch, try more New Orleans originals: a muffuletta and an ABITA BEER or BARQ’s root beer at the Central Grocery or at the Progress Grocery, both in the 900 block of Decatur. Take your food and beverage over to the Jackson Square, or a spot along the river levee, the MOON WALK, or WOLDENBERG PARK. Watch the boats coming up and down the busy Mississippi, or enjoy the street performers. Or, pick one of the chic eateries of Riverwalk’s three shopping levels, all of which open onto the river…or check out the fountain at scenic Spanish Plaza.
The LOUISIANA STATE MUSEUM is a collection of five separate and fascinating sites: begin with the CABILDO and the PRESBYTERE, flanking the historic St. Louis Cathedral on the Square; there’s MADAME JOHN’S LEGACY at 632 Dumaine, and the OLD U.S. MINT at 400 Esplanade. Together, they preserve part of the city’s history and her legacy of European, African and Caribbean cultures that formed the city’s fabulous musical heritage. The Old Mint houses extensive jazz memorabilia and archives behind an elegant Greek Revival façade. In a complex of restored buildings, THE HISTORIC NEW ORLEANS COLLECTION, AT 533 Royal Street, explores the history and customs of Louisiana and New Orleans, including artists, architecture, the French Quarter, Mardi Gras and Jazz.
DINNER BELLS ARE RINGIN’
Someone else sings for your supper at CAFÉ GIOVANNI, 117 Decatur Street. Three nights a week they offer opera while you eat.
Cruise the Mississippi to traditional music on board one of the two riverboats where dinner is also served. Dine while you listen to some very good jazz at THE PALM COURT JAZZ CAFÉ, 1204 Decatur, where unscheduled musicians drop in for impromptu jams.
After dinner, head down to a true New Orleans music experience at PRESERVATION HALL, 716 St. Peter. The jazz is truly hot here.
BOURBON STREEET BLUES
Named for the French royals (not the liquor), the street swings all night and into the wee hours. Some like to simply cruise the street for music and certainly, for houses like the MAISON BOURBON, 641 Bourbon Street, which features a solid roster of live talent nightly. When you just have to howl with abandon, take the karaoke mike at CAT’S MEOW, 701 Bourbon.
Music and dance venues entertain neighborhoods around the city. Here are a few highlights of the Quarter and Faubourg Marigny: The FUNKY BUTT, 714 Rampart, named for jazz inventor Buddy Bolden’s home club, drawing serious contemporary jazz talent despite its chic Art Deco ambiance.
Jimmy Buffet parrotheads naturally flock to the MARGARITAVILLE CAFÉ, 1104 Decatur, where land sharks hang from the ceilings. Patrons are awash in several varieties of Margaritas, and even the furniture is splashed in Caribbean fantasy. Waste away while listening to local rock, blues and Zydeco acts. Popular with the Boho sets, you might have to elbow your way into CAFÉ BRASIL, 2100 Chartres, when a hot group like the Iguanas plays. But the music pours out through the open doors, where couples dance to hip-hop, Latin and jazz in the moonlight.
Over in the Central Business District, a hotbed of alternative rock, rhythm and blues and jazz. THE HOWLIN WOOF at 828 S. Peters Street, stages locals like ‘Better than Ezra.’
BRUNCH TO LUNCH TUNES
In New Orleans, the current meal is the most important one of the day. So, make breakfast and even. If it’s Sunday, go for the gospel – brunch that is. THE PRALINE CONNECTION at 901 South Peters in the Central Business District serves up Creole soul food with an array of local talent.
THE HOUSE OF BLUES, 225 Decatur, will have both imported and local entertainers whipping up a mixture of New Orleans goodies, including a divine white chocolate bread pudding. Every weekend there are jazz brunches. Check your hotel for information about who’s playing now.
If you like what you hear around town, among its eclectic wares, the FRENCH MARKET’S FLEA MARKET carries CDs by local artists and usually at lower prices than the stores. Just listening not enough? T-shirts, posters and tchotchkes of your pet bands and all things New Orleans go for a song.
Three music purveyors in the Quarter carry good selections of local artists from the Nevilles and Doctor John to Better than Ezra. Check out local retailer LOUISIANA MUSIC FACTORY at 210 Decatur Street, TOWER RECORDS at 408 North Peters, and VIRGIN RECORDS at 630 Decatur. HOUSE OF BLUES also sells CDs of current, past and future acts playing there.
Louis Armstrong Park on North Rampart Street was built on the site of Congo Square, where the tribal dances of slaves seeped into the Creole music culture. Also at site, discover the people and forces that shaped jazz at the NEW ORLEANS JAZZ NATIONAL HISTORICAL PARK (entrance at 916 St. Peter Street), the only site in the national park service dedicated to a music form.
Make a pilgrimage to the NEW ORLEANS CENTER FOR CREATIVE ARTS, 2800 Chartres (once the school of Harry Connick, Jr.), where artists and musicians train. Great architecture: an old train station has been recycled into a school of inspiration to young artists. Check the schedule for performances there, from string quartets to jazz combos.
New Orleans’ CITIES OF THE DEAD are famous for burying citizens six feet over instead of under. Music legends lie in state among the city’s 40 cemeteries. Louis Prima’s monument at the majestic METAIRIE CEMETERY, just west of City Park, is etched with the lyrics to his song, “Just a Gigolo.” The tomb of trumpet great Al Hirt is also here, along with extravagant structures like the Brunswig pyramid tomb and the Piazzati memorial. At the nearby Delgado College campus, Jazz pioneers Buddy Bolden and Jessie Hill are buried in Holt Cemetery, an indigent’s burial place.
Tour WWOZ listener-supported radio station at 1201 St. Philip Street. A lot more than a great sound, WWOZ is a repository of the city’s music heritage.
Casual dining is the norm in the Big Easy. Raw oysters don’t care how you dress. ACME and FELIX’S oyster bars and restaurants (both on Iberville in the Quarter) together add up to over 150 years of shelling out fresh raw oysters and a variety of seafood. It doesn’t get much easier than Donna’s Bar & Grill, where the only thing hotter than the barbecue is the young and brassy band blowing their stuff in a neighborhood atmosphere, 800 North Rampart. Or head uptown to Pascal’s Manale at 1838 Napoleon, for barbecued shrimp, raw oysters, seafood and Italian cuisine.
Looking for the quintessential New Orleans beat? Here goes: TIPPITINA’S, 501 Napoleon Avenue, home to the Neville Brothers, and a shrine to Professor Longhair (rub the head of his bust for luck), has long been dance central in New Orleans. Up your alley? At Mid-City’s Rock-N-
Bowl, 4133 Carrollton, knock over a few pins, down some hearty local fare, knock back a few beers and dance to Cajun, Zydeco, swing, rhythm and blues. Only in New Orleans and dance lessons are free.
The MAPLE LEAF BAR at 8316 Oak, looks like a dive with a patio in the back, but locals know that the best Louisiana bands play to full houses here almost every night. At JIMMY’S, 8200 Willow Street, rock out to alternative or punk. Groups like Cowboy Mouth have been regulars there for years.
Hard to find and kind of quirky: if challenge is your siren song, do the backstroke over to the MERMAID LOUNGE, 1102 Constance Street. Small, hip and in no-man’s land at a dead end, the undergrounders gather for punk or indie rock, maybe funk. Built, owned and staffed by local musicians, it’s the real ting, but you may need radar and a GPS to find it. Looking for some good, clean fun? Check out CHECK POINT CHARLIE, 501 Esplanade Avenue, a place that redefines casual. The bar and grill-cum-laundromat is loud, bright, open 24 hours and locals use it as a second living room and crash pad. The live music every night (and into the early morn) covers all styles, and rare is the cover charge. Thanks to the on-premises laundromat, you can drink while you dry.
There are two jazz dens on college campuses developing new talent.
You may discover the next young lion like a Thelonius Monk, Billie Holiday or John Coltrane when present and future jazz greats perform. First, young musicians wash in at THE SANDBAR more often than starfish on the beach. This jazz den on the University of New Orleans campus features programs with young cubs including protégés of older lions like Ellis Marsalis and Victor Atkins.
The city is full of coffee bars, French cafes and eateries that serve up coffee with chicory, and breakfasts sparse to lavish. New Orleanians were drinking café au lait long before Starbucks came along.
The BACKSTREET CULTURAL MUSEUM
in Faubourg Treme, the old Storyville District, at 1116 St. Claude Avenue, explores the musical traditions of rhythm and blues, jazz,soul, and rock’n’roll. The museum documents and honors the lives and times of Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, Professor Longhair, Fats Domino, Dr. John, the Neville Brothers and dozens of musical kings who created the sounds of New Orleans music. Exhibits include the history of the famous Mardi Gras Indians, jazz funerals and second line parades. Nearby is the historic Creole architectural gem, Villa Meilleur, housing the NEW ORLEANS AFRICAN AMERICAN MUSEUM OF ART, CULTURE AND HISTORY, 1418 Governor Nicholls St., a public venue for the visual and performing arts. Artists perform, conduct workshops, and exhibit their works, often depicting musical themes.
Try a po-boy, a New Orleans specialty since the Depression, when businessmen gave them to poor urchins. These sandwiches are typically made with French bread and either fried oysters, shrimp, roast beef or ham. If you order your po-boy ‘dressed,’ it comes with lettuce, tomato, and mayo. They’re available throughout the city, and most locals will swear they know the best place. This makes scores, or maybe hundreds, of the best sandwich you ever ate.
Kick back and hop aboard the St. Charles Avenue streetcar, the world’s oldest continuously (except for a brief two-year span caused by the flood waters of Katrina) operating street railway, and a National Historic Landmark. The rumbling iron wheels pass through the Central Business District, around Lee Circle, then up gracious old St. Charles Avenue…passing by the Garden District, by dozens of grand Greek Revival and Victorian mansions (like the Wedding Cake house at 5809 St.Charles). The St. Charles streetcar passes by Loyola and Tulane universities, Audubon Park and its great zoo, and into the Carrollton Section.
On your return streetcar ride, hop off at the Circle and walk on over to the World War II Museum at 900 Magazine. Continue toward the river and you’ll come upon BLAINE KERN’S MARDI GRAS WORLD where you’ll see how the carnival floats are designed and built, as well as hundreds of carnival costumes.
There’s always more to do in New Orleans, more to see, more to hear. Don’t forget the other senses: the scent of sweet olive in the air in the Garden District, on Royal Street, and uptown. There’s the velvet touch of a gentle river breeze along the Moonwalk, the taste of New Orleans food, the sights of Creole architecture painted in bright Caribbean colors. So much here.
Remember that there are scores of web sites dedicated to finding the best in New Orleans and a virtual library of information waiting for you at the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau, 2020 St. Charles Avenue.
This material may be reproduced for editorial purposes of promoting New Orleans. Please attribute stories toNew Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau. 2020 St. Charles Avenue, New Orleans, LA 70130 504-566-5019. http://www.neworleanscvb.com/. Revised 2009.