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