Jump, jive, and wail

Jazz’s birth­place, new Or­leans, is ev­ery­thing you’d ex­pect it to be and more.

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IMADE my first trip to New Or­leans dur­ing Thanks­giv­ing. It was the first time my wife and were away from fam­ily on the Amer­i­can hol­i­day – which is ded­i­cated to gorg­ing your­self on in­dul­gent food, spend­ing time with fam­ily and watch­ing foot­ball. Dur­ing the weekend trip, the hos­pitable peo­ple of Louisiana stood in for fam­ily. Live jazz was a con­sid­er­able up­grade from tele­vised sports. And we made all of New Or­leans our Thanks­giv­ing ta­ble, help­ing our­selves to gum­bos and shrimp po’ boys and beignets.

I could give you a meal-by-meal run­down of my time in the Big Easy, but this is a mu­sic col­umn. And if there’s one thing that can get me to put aside New Or­leans food for a mo­ment, it’s New Or­leans mu­sic. There are not many cities that can claim own­er­ship of a mu­sic genre, but not many can dis­pute that jazz be­gan in New Or­leans.

In the late 19th and early 20th cen­turies, jazz’s dis­parate el­e­ments came to­gether in New Or­leans be­cause of the city’s lo­ca­tion, pop­u­la­tion and cul­ture. African spir­i­tu­als and rhythms came via the for­mer slaves who had been forced to come to Amer­ica. (New Or­leans’ Congo Square re­mains a mu­sic land­mark; it’s where slaves met on Sun­days to sing, drum and dance.) Latin el­e­ments, in­clud­ing syn­co­pated styles and stut­ter beats, were in­tro­duced by Caribbean folks who had en­tered the port city. Euro­pean com­po­si­tion and melodic tra­di­tions seeped into the mu­sic, too. Af­ter all, New Or­leans wasn’t just an Amer­i­can city, but had been colonised by both the French and Span­ish. There were all kinds of lay­ers of flavour in this gumbo.

Un­like other gen­res, which got stuck with one name, jazz went by many monikers. It was swing, it was rag­time, it was syn­co­pa­tion, it was blues. For the past 100 years, peo­ple who want to place things in neat and tidy boxes have had a tough time putting jazz in its place – there’s or­ches­tral jazz, acid jazz, Cuban jazz, be­bop, jazz rap, jazz rock, and so on. Some mu­si­cians will tell you that jazz is a feel­ing. Oth­ers will call it a state of mind. Duke Elling­ton said, “It’s all mu­sic.”

With only a few days in New Or­leans, I wanted to make sure we could taste as many flavours of the Cres­cent City’s jazz her­itage as time al­lowed. I had planned to take in dif­fer­ent shows at dif­fer­ent venues ev­ery night of our stay. One venue that could not be missed was Preser­va­tion Hall, which – as its name sug­gests – is ded­i­cated to tra­di­tional New Or­leans jazz.

Lo­cated in the stately French Quar­ter, a cob­ble­stone’s throw away from the bar bands on Bour­bon Street, Preser­va­tion Hall is un­like any mu­sic venue I’d ever been in. No drinks are served, seat­ing is ba­sic, light­ing is dim. Per­for­mances take place in what looks like a burned-out liv­ing room. It’s like a mu­seum set up shop in a haunted house.

But the mu­sic, yes, the mu­sic, is sen­sa­tional. A ro­tat­ing group of mu­si­cians – some from New Or­leans, some from all over the world – team up to play Nawl­ins’ clas­sics al­most ev­ery night.

The drum­mer stomps out that “big four” rhythm, the heart­beat of the city, and the small en­sem­ble launches into some­thing by Louis Arm­strong or a tra­di­tional jazz stan­dard like Li’l Liza Jane.

Lyrics are al­tered, so­los are im­pro­vised. This might be a mu­seum, but it’s a lively one.

Another night, we wan­dered just out­side the Quar­ter to Snug Har­bor on French­men Street. Again, the name says plenty. Snug Har­bor, de­spite be­ing two sto­ries tall, is co­zier than a fully-booked Air Asia flight. The stage is small, too. And on this evening, it had to ac­com­mo­date a big band that played big band jazz: the Up­town Jazz Orches­tra.

The group’s leader is Delfeayo Marsalis (a trom­bon­ist in one of jazz’s royal fam­ily, which in­cludes his fa­ther El­lis and brothers Wyn­ton and Bran­ford), who in­cor-

Satchmo style: Louis arm­strong’s mu­sic typ­i­fied the new Or­leans sound. — aP

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