In the weeks since returning from New Orleans, the thing that has been sticking with me the most is the music. During the week I experienced brass bands, traditional jazz ensembles, reggae, trumpet players on park benches and more. Everywhere we went, the music seemed to find its way out of doors and into my ears. Not only did I love hearing all the music, but I loved how everyone else seemed to love it too. From kids not even out of high school to 70 year old men, everyone enjoys and soaks up local music.
I’m kind of jealous of the way music is such an ingrained part of New Orleans life. I love listening to music, playing music, and just experiencing music. Unfortunately, I think that for a lot of Americans, music is a very passive listening only experience. New Orleans certainly doesn’t follow this idea. People are expected to get up and move and be a part of the music. I fell in love with the music culture in New Orleans.
In the months leading up to the trip, we listened to our regular song of the day in class. I enjoyed these songs, but they felt somewhat disjointed. From Big Freedia to the Wild Magnolias, to Louis Armstrong, to Louis Moreau Gottschalk — it was all interesting and I enjoyed the somewhat new sounds, but it was very abstract.
Once in New Orleans, I began to see, hear and understand how it all fit together in one place. We heard Paul Sanchez sing about the city, about its struggles and its love for life. His voice, paired with fantastic guitar reminded me a little of folk singers up north. The themes he sang and spoke about reminded me that we were far from there. He’s been a part of a musical adaptation of the book Nine Lives, and a song telling the story of Orleans parish coroner Frank Minyard repeats the line “Where are the bodies?” – a bit shocking, startling and very effective in its message. He was accompanied by Arsene DeLay, whose voice was incredible beyond words. It was sweet and smooth, yet at the same time striking and powerful. The concert made for a fantastic evening for the first full day in the city.
We found that the clubs on Bourbon Street played popular dance music that spread far beyond the walls of the buildings and saturated the humid air. It was loud and it was crazy, but that seems to be the New Orleans way. The clubs nearby on Frenchmen Street host more authentic New Orleans music. It was there that I experienced my first live brass band. New Orleans musicians put a cool in brass that I didn’t know existed. The sound was less like playing an instrument and more like singing through the instrument. There was nothing refined, and everything exciting and soulful. I loved it. The part that I’m the most amazed by though is the ability of these musicians to memorize and improvise — there was even a student from Indiana University who seamlessly jumped in and played with the band for the night. The sound shot out of their instruments and filled the room. The energy was amazing and I couldn’t sit still. It was a really wonderful night — I felt like I was really experiencing New Orleans.
Later in the week, we went to see Dr. Michael White and his quartet play traditional New Orleans jazz at Xavier University of Louisiana. The band consisted of jazz clarinet, trumpet, banjo, and bass and all four players were incredibly talented musicians. They played a number of songs, and spoke about the development of jazz before each one. The history and evolution was so interesting and made each tune all the more interesting to me. The band was tighter and the sound more refined but without sounding flat or repetitive. They improvised together, and I was in awe with their skill. My favorite was when the trumpet player Gregg Stafford sang “Basin Street Blues” in his raspy yet smooth voice, adding things about our group and that very night. I loved it.
We experienced each ‘sub-genre’ of New Orleans music in its place in New Orleans and it all began to make sense. The people in New Orleans are of such diverse backgrounds and cultures and the music is likewise. I know that during my week in New Orleans, I only experienced a small portion of all the music there is. It pulled me in and, now that I’m hooked, I’ll be able to explore more New Orleans music and better appreciate it. Dr. John next to Galactic won’t seem quite so strange anymore, but rather pieces of the whole New Orleans picture.