New Orleans: The music never stops
A brass band plays on the famous Frenchmen Street in New Orleans. Photo / Supplied
One thing that New Orleans does better than anywhere else is party, discovers Ewan McDonald.
By Ewan McDonald
Latest News | August 27, 2015
A brass band leads a parade through the French Quarter in New Orleans. Photo / AP
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Somewhere between 10 and 2; 10pm and 2am. A seven-piece band is playing jazz and the crowd is swaying. A middle-aged man dances with his wife until the song ends, takes her back to their table, walks across the bar to another woman.
He leans close and asks her to dance. His wife watches. Sax rolls into a tune everyone knows. The man and his new partner swing into the beat. On this sweltering night she is wearing a long grey cardigan. She has a blue rinse through the tight curls of her permanent wave. She will never see 80 again. Maybe not 85.
N'awlins. You've been there even if you've never landed at Louis Armstrong International Airport. The music. The books. The movies. The food. The news. There can be few cities with such a grip on the universal imagination, on popular culture: New York. Hollywood. London Paris Venice.
This town has much, maybe too much, in common with the last: surviving in and on its past; as much a tourist attraction as a functioning city; living with the knowledge that the waters that shaped it will, one day, possibly tomorrow, swallow it. Only one thing is certain: the Crescent City will not bow down. It will go down partying.
For that is what Nola (short for New Orleans, Louisiana) does better than anywhere else, 24/7/365 or /366 in a leap year. Heck, right off Canal St - the main drag - are Burgundy St and Bourbon St. Next to one another.
Bourbon St. Gateway to the French Quarter, the grid of streets and alleys that lure visitors with the city's earliest settlers, traditions. By day it can be sleazy: hawkers and hookers and hookahs; by night it is often worse. Cooking smells waft from kitchens, blending with methane from the sewers, for this town is built on swamps. That is why visitors pass vast cemeteries on the way from the airport: can't bury people in water, gotta lay them in crypts above ground.
Bourbon St. Where visitors come to hear blues and jazz, thinking this to be their birthplace. There can be gems (a Britpunk zydeco outfit with washboard and electric fiddle) but the sound is more likely Rotary Club renditions of The Saints Go Marchin' In. Hint: if the band is playing Stuck in the Middle orGo Your Own Way, it's not a traditional jazz club.
Jazz was illegitimately conceived a few blocks north in Basin St, Congo Square and the red-lights of Storyville: the Treme area, the oldest African-American neighbourhood in the US, where "free people of colour" worked and owned property decades before Lincoln's proclamation. Home to those singing, stepping, strutting brass-band parades known as the "second line".
A taxi driver didn't want to take visitors there. "That place, that's somewhere else." So I walked through streets where what the wowsers didn't clear up over decades, gentrification and the hurricanes finished off.
Katrina and Rita, can't miss their legacy here. Sewers and streets and utilities and hospitals are still being rebuilt - the official term is "improved" - a decade on. Six-hour blackout across the CBD and French Quarter last night, after a transformer exploded. Of course, that can happen in First World cities (ahem, Transpower).
Frenchmen St is the musical heart of New Orleans. Photo / AP
It was quite an evening. Got in the mood with lunch: jambalaya, crawfish pie and a file gumbo. And po'boys, meatball or fish or heaven knows what-all sandwiches with thick gravy that line the stomach for whatever the night might bring on.
Frenchmen St, just outside the French Quarter, is the jumping musical heart of the city. Any night you'll find world-class jazz, blues and funk at clubs such as Snug Harbor and the Blue Nile. You will even find locals. Might even luck into Wynton Marsalis' sidemen, after a gig, playing for fun and tips.
Walked the block or three of storefront bars, listening to the sounds, six of us agreeing on one we'd all like to try. Small. Sweaty. Packed. Seven-piece band with horns, strings and - it's the way of things here - off to one side, the girl singer, wan, 20s-style dress. They played the standard, Jealousy. Dozens crowded the cash-only, no fancy drinks bar. Noticed the club's name, The Spotted Cat. It not only has serious music-biz cred, it features in most episodes of the Treme TV series.
Hours later, at a third or fourth club, another band begins another set. The singer leaves his mic and takes the old lady in his arms. On this sweaty, sultry night it's easy to imagine Armstrong, Fats Domino or Clifton Chenier ragging. Perhaps she might have danced with them, too.
A band singer dances with an elderly patron at Maison Jazz Bar. Photo / Ewan McDonald
Such a night. Next morning, down to the riverside warehouses to check out the biggest bash in Party-town at the Mardi Gras Museum. It's not a one-night stand: Mardi Gras runs from Twelfth Night (January 6) until the day before the Christian fast of Lent.
For 12 days before Mardi Gras there is at least one major parade each day. The largest and most elaborate happen on the last five days. Imagine a week of Santa parades with 40-55 floats, each carrying 35-40 people, running through Queen St and the CBD. Business stops: the real business of New Orleans begins.
Parades are organised by social clubs known as krewes. Theoretically, anyone can join a krewe and ride on its float.
In the past 20 years, the once-haphazard and happy-go-lucky floats have been supplanted by super-krewes: massive moving theatres, Pixar-level stagecraft, through streets lined with thousands of tourists waiting to be thrown plastic beads, fake coins, plastic cups in the traditional purple, gold and green colours. Many wearing as little as legal (do not Google images: they may be NSFW). Parades are now so big they cannot enter narrow Bourbon St or the French Quarter, for the floats are too big, the fire risk too great.
At the "museum" - it's a workshop - dozens of painters and technicians are crawling around three-times lifesize Styrofoam renditions of real and pop-cult figures, changing Ray Charles into Barack Obama, Abraham Lincoln into a Super Bowl footballer or Batman's butler or whoever is the theme for next year's parade. In other suburbs, African-American tribes of "Indians" will be sewing elaborately and garishly feathered suits for their Big Chief, Flag Boy and Spy Boy to wear in their carnivals.
Of course it's utterly and unimaginably over the top: there are another 17 Mardi Gras float warehouses around the city. But over the top is what America does best.
And that's what Nola does better than anywhere in America.
A very familiar film set
The Oak Alley plantation was used in 12 Years a Slave. Photo / Supplied
Sometimes you arrive at a place for the first time but you've been there a hundred times before: in the pages of a book, scenes from a movie. Oak Alley is that place; that house, those fields. These days, you arrive there on the Great River Rd which is just two lanes of blacktop that meanders the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge.
When the estate was created in the early 19th century, all along the rolling river was the highway. Scores of plantations, each with its gracious Big House, lined its banks. Oak Alley is the best preserved and most photographed of the dozen or so that remain.
Our minibus can't use the former entrance; 28 giant live oaks form an honour guard along the dead-straight 250m driveway from the river to the classic, three-storey, white, wooden mansion. As we turn into the carpark our driver reels off its movie roles. Hush ... Hush Sweet Charlotte. The Long, Hot Summer. Days of Our Lives. Interview With the Vampire. Primary Colors. The Young and the Restless. Beyonce's Deja vu video and B'Day photo shoots. You have been here, even if you didn't know it.
We walk through two of the three levels of the Big House, mostly restored to its early 19th century heyday, with a period-costumed guide. Though it wasn't built until 1839, the plantation reflects the multicultural gumbo of Louisiana that gave the world Cajun and Creole food, jazz and zydeco music, Mardi Gras and voodoo. What we now call Louisiana was settled by indigenous tribes, explored by French, farmed by Germans, ruled by Spanish, and all that time the British kept a-coming.
We have read enough history, enough novels, seen enough movies to know Southern culture bequeathed America some other legacies. Even if you haven't read Uncle Tom's Cabin or seen 12 Years a Slave you know what happened in the cottonfields and sugarcane plantations along the Mississippi. Rich farmers - here, mostly of French heritage - celebrated their wealth and family connections in these mansions.
True Detective was filmed at the Oak Alley plantation in New Orleans. Photo / Supplied
So the history we hear relates to the families who owned the house and the surrounding canefields: their fortunes grew and diminished until the place sank into disrepair around 1900, a shelter for wandering stock, bought and restored by a Texas beef rancher for his wife. On her death, she turned it over to a family-managed trust, to perpetuate a history that might have gone with the wind.
We leave the house and enter the grounds; beautifully maintained, magnolia scent hanging heavy in the humidity. The other side of the story: beside the white-pebbled path are slave quarters, neatened and tidied to far better condition than they could have been in bygone days.
"They're almost like ..." I begin saying to a colleague on our way to the restaurant and gift shop, and she beats me to the punchline: "Yes, the B&B cottages are just over there."
I follow another path behind a hedge to a replica of an officer's tent-quarters, reminding visitors of the estate's role during the Civil War in these parts. Four flags flutter outside; one is the Confederate Stars and Bars that is causing so much angst up, down and across America's TV channels at this time. In this historical display it is relevant and appropriate.
As we leave the driver waves towards the still tilled fields where slaves once toiled in stultifying heat. "That's where they filmed the opening scene of True Detective."