You know I’m not afraid to admit it: I love New Orleans. However, if you take a realistic look at the whole, what is there to love? Corruption, poverty, crime, lousy weather and, oh yes, the fact that much of the city lies below sea level. How can you love something like that?
For me personally, I can name a number of things. The history, the architecture, the people, the languid and seemingly carefree pace of life, and the food. The red beans and rice, crab cakes, po-boys, muffulettas, beignets, cafe au lait, pralines, and, oh yeah, the fried chicken. But, if I were to drill to the core of my love for the city there is one big thing: the music.
I don’t exactly know where it came from. I do remember, as a small child, listening to a probably hideous compilation of Dixieland jazz that my mother owned. She had others, that included things like Gershwin songs, and Sousa marches, but the collection that captured me featured such tunes as Muskrat Ramble, the Tiger Rag, and St. James Infirmary. Those stuck with me, and even when I didn’t care much for New Orleans, I still identified with the city where such music was born.
It is hard to summarize, because art is so personal and music, as it has developed in New Orleans, is so fluid. In addition, it may be because music in New Orleans is ubiquitous. It is in the street, the food, the blood. It is the essence of the city and neither could exist without the other. Harry Shearer’s essay, “The Street,” which you will read shortly, sums it up beautifully. You may know Shearer as the voice of several character’s from “The Simpsons” and as Derek Smalls, the bass player of the fictitious band “Spinal Tap.”
There is much hackneyed Dixieland, blues , classic rock and zydeco/Cajun music to be heard on Bourbon Street, but it is meant for the tourist crowd who won’t venture outside of the Quarter. It does not convey the musical soul or diversity of the city. To locate that soul, you only need to look around.
A half a block from the excesses of Bourbon Street, you can find genuine music at Preservation Hall. A couple of blocks across Esplanade from the French Quarter, you’ll find the myriad of venues on Frenchmen Street, “The Street” of Harry Shearer’s wonderful essay. Further outside the Quarter you can find real music at Vaughan’s in Bywater, the Howlin’ Wolf in the Warehouse District , or at Tipitina’s, the Maple Leaf, or the Rock and Bowl, Uptown.
In New Orleans, music is alive and ever present. You can catch Kermit Ruffins and his Barbecue Swingers every Thursday night Vaughan’s. The New Orleans Jazz Vipers are at the Spotted Cat on Frenchmen every Tuesday and Friday night. The Rebirth Brass Band plays all over; in the next week I am there they appear at the Rock and Bowl, the Maple Leaf, and the Howlin’ Wolf. John Boutte, the Hot 8 Brass Band, members of the Neville or Marsalis families, Henry Butler — they are ever present. You might even find some of them playing on the streets, in front of the Cathedral, or elsewhere. And you’ll see them in other music venues, watching and listening, when other musicians are playing.
Music in New Orleans is not something that is relegated to a record bin or a recording. It is local, it is live, it is a part of the fabric of the city. The daily listing of live events on WWOZ can take over two minutes and they run it once an hour.
Other cities may claim the title of “Music City.” New Orleans doesn’t have to make such a claim; music is part of its being and its very existence, as we know it, depends upon this symbiotic relationship.