As a musician, I struggle with the fact that most of the centers of art are cities like New York and LA. I don’t function well in hustle and bustle, fast-paced rat race rigamarole. I get overstimulated. After three days in NYC, I start to feel jittery, and ready to leave. I need a place that feeds my soul as I move at my own pace, processing and engaging with my world. New Orleans was a lovely little haven, and after a week there, I’m already to return. I feel I’ve only tasted a hint of what the city has to offer….like a first sip of gumbo, the heat lingering on my tongue leaving me wanting more.
Music, of course, is one of the main joys. I heard so much good music everywhere I went. That was no surprise. But two things did surprise me. The first is the diversity of the music. I wasn’t expecting to walk into a club to find a white guy from Rhode Island playing an electro-acoustic bass African kora he’d built along with a drummer with a traditional kit, an electric drum pad, and one of those old metal clip on bed lamp-shades and a saxophone player. (Buku Broux was the band) There were similar surprises dotted throughout the city, though jazz and R&B/Funk was a centerpiece. (Raw Deal, The Little Big Horns) Young kids cut their chops in an impromptu street band on Frenchman St., and would grow into the more cultivated bands playing in Jackson Square. We even saw a second line marching down the street outside our hotel window with a bride and groom leading the way, the wedding party following behind.
But the bigger surprise, or maybe realization is a better word, is how ingrained music is in the heart of New Orleans culture. Not the New Orleans down in the French Quarter. Not New Orleans built as an engine of tourism. Just…the heart of the people and the city. We went out one night to Bullet’s Sports Bar. In Baltimore, we’d call Bullet’s a “Townie” bar. It’s in a house at the end of a row of houses. It functions as the neighborhood hangout to share a beer and watch the Saints NFL game on Sunday. There’s a vending machine in the back, and you can also walk up to the kitchen if you want to order food. It’s a dive bar for locals. And that’s where New Orleans-famous trumpeter, Kermit Ruffins, held court. We got there when the calendar said it started…6pm. It didn’t start until 7:30pm, but if we’d been any later we wouldn’t have gotten a table/seat. When Kermit came in, he made the rounds and said hello to everyone before he started playing. These same people that were probably wearing Saints jersey’s and screaming at the TV’s on Sunday were dancing in the aisles singing classic New Orleans jazz tunes in French on a Wednesday night… Everywhere I went, music felt important and alive, a part of culture and identity that was valued in ways beyond the sense of commodification or artistic revelation like in NYC. This was music from and for the soul. (Continued in Part 2, Part 3)