Thursday, May 19, 2011

New Orleans: Jazz

I have heard more than one person say recently, “New Orleans is my favorite city.” A cyclist we met on the Natchez Trace the other day said, “New Orleans. You either love it or you hate it,” and then added, “I want to be there right now.” My sister’s one-sentence appraisal is, “It’s smelly and dirty: I hate it.”

To each his or her own, as they say.

After having spent a mere two days on foot in the French Quarter, I’m in no position to call New Orleans my favorite city. (New York? London? Rome? Paris?) But I can say that New Orleans is fascinating and full of history and energy and music and color. If the Minnesota State Fair were held on the Left Bank in Paris, the atmosphere would perhaps resemble that of the French Quarter in New Orleans.

To which remark the learned might reply, “There is very little French architecture in the French Quarter. The neighborhood is largely a reflection of Spanish building and decorative techniques.” All well and good. Let’s just say that the open-air bohemian café-sitting, the street musicians, the various little shops and museums, the urban intimacy created by the side-streets and courtyards and grade-school kids in uniform marching toward the waiting bus, give the place an attractive European ambiance, while the affordable and unfussy Cajun cuisine and the ubiquity of tourists in flip-flops and tank tops divest the area of the slightest whiff of haughtiness or pretense.

Here’s a theory: The French Quarter is the anti-Las Vegas. Everything is small and closed in, some of it is venerable and most of it (dare I say it?) is sort of “real.” Yet it shares with Las Vegas the sense that those who come here know why they came, and they know how to have a good time while they’re here.

Ten minutes after we’d hit the streets, slightly overwhelmed by the age and glitter and grit of the Quarter, we turned a corner and happened upon the Smoking Time Jazz Club, a brass band that was playing some old-time tunes like “Sweetheart on Parade” and “Livin’ in a Great Big Way.” A lithe young couple was doing the Charleston (or something) on the street in front of the band. They were part of the band, in fact. The musicians were equally loose and the soloists took to their sixteen bars of fame with brash and joyous aggressiveness.

Ninety degrees. Trumpets blaring, limbs flaring. It was a great introduction to the city. We even bought one of the band’s CDs—a self-produced item sans label wrapped in a sheet of yellow construction paper. (I’m listening to it now. It’s good.)

That night (after returning to the room for a nap, a shower, and a glance at the laptop in search of entertainment ideas) we wandered back down to Bourbon Street, which was just coming alive. Monday is probably the quietest night of the week, but there was still plenty of music blaring out of doorways, block after block.

Folks were wandering here and there with green Hurricanes in hand, though they weren’t staggering yet. It was exhilarating to thread that gauntlet, though nothing I heard sounded all that tempting to me. The Dixieland bands were less youthful and brash that what we’d heard at noon, and though the Cajun band we listened to for a while from one doorway was good, we’d been hearing that kind of thing for days and the dance-floor inside was already packed. The ubiquitous, noodling white blues guitarists that came into aural range, block after block, were uniformly dreadful. That’s just my opinion.)

Eight or twelve blocks on toward downtown, we finally wandered into the marble-lined, fern-festooned halls of the quiet, largely empty, and unmitigatedly staid lobby of the Royal Sonesta Hotel.

The choice was neither arbitrary nor escapist. We’d come to the Irvin Mayfield Jazz Playhouse to hear the The Original Tuxedo Jazz Band, which has a continuous record of performing in New Orleans dating back to 1910. A few of the original members have “passed” by now, of course. But drummer Bob French has led the group since 1977, which isn’t bad. The band was good-natured and eager to please. The white guitarist (who, to judge from his solos, might once have been a protégé of Johnny Smith or Howard Roberts) looked like he’d just stepped off the set of I Dream of Genie. A black torch-singer in a white spaghetti-strap gown stepped up onto the stage to do a few songs, and at one point the trumpeter cut loose with a brief but startlingly inventive solo. All in all, the set was “good enough,” considering there was no cover and a one-drink minimum.

It was made more interesting by the fact that a pleasant, uninhibited, middle-aged woman joined us at our table. She’s spent the previous week at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival with a “gold” pass. She was thrilled to have heard Sonny Rollins at the final concert, and was a little surprised to learn that the Northerners with whom she was sharing a table had heard Rollins—“Yes, live”—several times during the ‘70s, when he was still in his prime.

She was an interesting woman—she called the San Juan Islands in Puget Sound home. Evidently she didn’t need money and wandered where she willeth, but she wasn’t trying to impress anybody. She seemed to have roots in New Orleans, too: as it happens, she was dating the bassist—a tall, elderly black man with a well-trimmed mustache and courtly manners who came over to join us after the set. He’d been engaged throughout the Jazz Festival with one combo or another, and the two of them re-lived the exciting moments they’d heard or participated in while we finished our $6 pints and prepared our exit.

“How long will you be staying in New Orleans,” the man asked us genteelly as we rose to depart. “We’ve only got one more day here,” I replied. “We’re due back in Minneapolis on Sunday.”

“But that’s four days!” he blurted out, somewhat surprised.

“We’ll be doing a bit of zigzagging through the Ozarks,” I replied apologetically. (But it was true.)

We could have learned a lot from those two, but it was a little hard to hear what they were saying across the table with the music being piped into the room.

The next day was walking tours (National Park Service) and museums and beignets and blackened catfish po boys, and I was surprised when, back at our hotel room at 6 pm, I looked over and saw Hilary with her curlers in her hair. I guess we’re going out again.

Bourbon Street was a bit more animated, and there were quite a few more women of all ages and shapes in fringed bikinis leaning from doorways toward the passing businessmen.

We got to the Jazz Playhouse at the Royal Sonesta before the set started. We listened in as the drummer (Jason Marsalis) chatted with the reedman (Rex Gregory) about the chord changes on some obscure Art Blakey LP from the mid-1950s like a couple of precocious college ethnomusicologists who were specializing in bop.

As I sat in my Victorian chair fifteen feet from the stage, the talented but self-effacing bassist, Peter Harris, looked like a surfer Wilson that was too clean-cut to join his older brothers in the Beach Boys. Marsalis himself looked like a young Will Smith. And Rex looked like a thin white guy with a cap trying to be cool. I mention the strangely collegial appearance of these folks as a prelude to declaiming that the set they played was one of the best I’ve heard in years.

As I remember it, a week or two after the fact, the play-list included a Charlie Parker tune (“Barbados”), a Monk tune (“Nutty”), a Hoagy Carmichael tune (“Stardust”), and “All of Me.” But Jason Marsalis, like his older brother Wynton, is not only a fine musician but a musical scholar and a resident of New Orleans. Therefore, he felt compelled to grope even deeper into the past to come up with “St. James Infirmary,” “You Are My Sunshine,” and finally even “Bourbon Street Parade.” But there was nothing academic or Gunther Schuler-esque about these performances. Marsalis provided the percussive energy and Gregory sustained the lyric spark. I kept saying to myself, like Redford (or Newman), “Who are those guys?” The absence of a piano was a blessing. Genius in our midst. Egoless expression. These people don’t know how good they are…

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