I was in New Orleans last weekend with Kim. She had a medical conference; I tagged along to keep her company and be her travel beast of burden. It was my first time in New Orleans, so on my first day in town, I decided to check out Bourbon Street.
I started walking northeast from our hotel on Lee Circle, going through the central business district, which was pretty much like that of any other city, except with better architecture. As I neared Canal Street, I heard music echoing off the buildings. It was big, brassy, and full of lively rhythms. The source was at Canal and Bourbon, in front of a Foot Locker store. Two trombones, a cornet, a trumpet made up the front line, supported by a tuba, a bass drum, and a snare. The players were kind of a scruffy lot of ordinary looking joes ranging from late teens to maybe fifty years old. Six were black, and the trumpeter was white. The apparent leader was the oldest, a stocky guy with a thick set of braids pulled back in a ponytail. He was the one with the cornet and a can of malt liquor wrapped in a brown paper bag that he sipped from between pieces. All of the instruments were well used, most with plenty of dents and dings, and a few patched up with duct tape.
I thought about buying one of their homemade CDs, but decided against it and just dropped some cash in their cardboard box. A CD just wouldn’t be the same as being in this place with these people, watching the tourists watch the band and watching the locals spontaneously dancing in the street for a few minutes as they walked by on their way to or from work. Instead I sat down on the sidewalk, leaned back against the wall of the shoe store, and let the sounds soak into my memory, into my skin, into my heart.
I listened to them play for an hour. There wasn’t a sheet of music in sight—not even a set list. They only took one five-minute break to smoke. The rest was musical bliss. They just played and played, occasionally talking to each other or waving to a familiar face, sometimes laughing at musical jokes with no words. This was the music I hoped to hear. This was jazz, New Orleans style.
I ran into this band a couple of other times over the weekend, sometimes with a slightly different lineup, but always having a good time. I spent the next couple of days exploring the French Quarter and loved it. Bourbon Street was, um, interesting, but it was the rest of Quarter that captured me. The buildings, the streets, the vegetation, the people, the feel in the air—all wonderful, all very much in the moment.
I can’t wait to go back. And next time, I’ll stay in the French Quarter.