It’s barely noon and someone has pulled an old piano onto Royal Street and is playing a lively ragtime tune accompanied by a small brass band. As I stand listening, a young couple runs onto the street and begins dancing.
On another street corner, an older gentleman belts out the Sesame Street theme song on a bass trombone. He pauses briefly to allow a passing tourist to pose with him for a photo before finishing up his solo. Once again music is flowing in the streets of New Orleans — jazz, Cajun, blues, or old fashioned rock ’n’ roll — you can find it seeping through random doorways and right on the streets of the historic French Quarter. But of all the types of music you’ll hear, there is no doubt that jazz remains the king in New Orleans.
New Orleans bills itself as the birthplace of jazz and it was jazz music that put the city on the map, musically speaking anyways. New Orleans jazz has a swinging, stomping beat and a simple melodic quality that gets you moving to the rhythm. So much so that it can be tempting to dance in the streets — even if you are not a good dancer.
Many music legends have hailed from New Orleans, including Fats Domino, Charlie Miller, Duke Ellington, Mahalia Jackson, Hank Williams Jr. and Louis Armstrong, to name just a few.
Even today, many of the world’s top jazz musicians get their start in New Orleans and every night of the week the streets and clubs of the Big Easy are alive with music. Whether it’s traditional New Orleans-style jazz, Chicago jazz, bebop, fusion or acid jazz, there’s something for every ear.
There are hundreds of places to go in New Orleans if you want to listen to jazz, but here are a few of the best. Be warned though, the deep earthy tones, melody and rhythm of jazz music played by the best musicians can be addictive. New Orleans can turn almost anyone into a jazz lover.
Preservation Hall — Located in the French Quarter, Preservation Hall was created as a sanctuary for New Orleans-style jazz. For more than 40 years, it has been the place to go to experience the best old-time jazz played by some of the city’s best musicians.
There’s nothing fancy about the hall and no food or drink is served there — the focus is entirely on the music. Listeners crowd in and sit on wooden benches or stand at the back. Even though the lines are long, it’s worth the wait.
Palm Court Jazz Café — Nationally recognized jazz musicians have been known to frequent the Palm Court. It’s a great place to hear traditional jazz and enjoy a meal at the same time. The restaurant serves traditional home-style New Orleans cuisine and showtime is at 8 p.m. most evenings. If you don’t want to eat, you can enjoy the jazz from a stool at the bar. That’s what many locals do.
French Quarter Bar — The drinks and food are a little pricey at this classy bar in the Ritz Carlton Hotel, but locals and visitors say that the jazz is worth it. Jeremy Davenport puts on a good show playing the trumpet and singing and other local talent is often featured.
It’s also a good place to people-watch. Movie stars have been known to frequent the hotel as well as this nightspot.
Snug Harbor — The down-river end of the French Quarter known to locals as the Marigny area is the place to go for good food and good music. The oldest and best establishment in the area is Snug Harbor Music Hall on Frenchmen Street. Modern jazz is the focus at Snug Harbor. This is the place Nicholas Payton grew up and Alan Toussaint made his jazz debut. Website: www.snugjazz.com
Other spots — There are many restaurants that offer traditional jazz, including the Court of Two Sisters daily jazz brunch, Colbalt Restaurant and Ray’s Over the River, to name a few. You’ll almost always find street musicians along Royal and Chartres Streets near the St. Louis Cathedral or outside the gazebo near the French Market.
New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival — This year marks the 40th anniversary of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. Known to locals simply as Jazz Fest, this festival is second only to Mardi Gras in attendance. It is a chance to celebrate the music of New Orleans and experience the food and culture that makes The Big Easy the magical place it is.
The festival will take place from April 24 to 26 and April 30 to May 3 this year and will feature the music of artists from around the world.
There is a lot of young local talent and some of this year’s headliners include Neil Young, Wynton Marsalis, Bon Jovi, Dave Matthews Band, James Taylor, Sugarland, Joe Cocker, Tony Bennett, Earth, Wind and Fire, Kings of Leon, Neville Brothers, Wilco, Bonnie Raitt, Allen Toussaint, The O’Jays, Erykah Badu and Dr. John. Tickets start at $40 per adult and $5 per child if purchased in advance. For more information on the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, visit: www.nojazzfest.com
If you go
• If you plan to attend Jazz Fest, you should book your flights and accommodations as far in advance as possible. Both can book up quickly during the festival.
• There are many lovely accommodation options in the French Quarter, but on our recent visit we chose to stay in a less costly hotel located on St. Charles Avenue in the Garden District. The Clarion Grand Boutique Hotel has reasonably priced rooms that have a lot of character. There is a trolley stop right in front of the hotel and it only takes a few minutes to get to the French Quarter. Room rates start at US$84 per night. For more information, visit www.grandboutiquehotel.com
• For more information on planning a visit to New Orleans, visit the city’s official tourism website: www.neworleansonline.com
Debbie Olsen is a Lacombe-based freelance writer. If you have a travel story you would like to share or know someone with an interesting travel story that we might interview, please email: DOGO@telusplanet.net or write to: Debbie Olsen, c/o Red Deer Advocate, 2950 Bremner Ave., Red Deer, T4R 1M9.