Hitting the Ground Running Tuesday, Mar 15 2016 

It has been about a day and a half since we collectively arrived in New Orleans. Is spite of flooding in the south and related thunderstorms, neither Southwest 737s or minivans, ran into weather delays. A burning tractor trailer in East Tennessee led to frustrating delays for of the two groups; however we were all safely in New Orleans by late afternoon on Saturday, March 12th.

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Kyle and Bill, Irish Channel St. Patrick’s Parade 2016

Two of the groups arrived in time to take part in the Irish Channel St. Patrick’s Parade Uptown. And, as they would find out firsthand over the next 24 hours, in New Orleans participation in parades is strongly encouraged. Whether it catching throws or passionately engaging with marchers for St. Paddy’s or dancing in a second line, you are generally part of the event.

At 5:30 in the afternoon, all four groups converged on the North Rampart Community Center, which is tucked in the the northeast corner of the French Quarter. Director “Coach” Parker welcomed us and provided the students with combination tour, orientation, and history lesson. The class was impressed with the facility; it would take a while for them to realize how good the location is.

In what has become a New Orleans trip, first-night tradition, the students headed over to the Joint, in the Bywater, an excellent barbecue place in a town not famous for its barbecue. With our arrival, the line quickly went out the door onto Mazant Street. It took a while by the end of the line the choice of smoked meats began to dwindle, but everyone was seated, fed, and left quite full, thank you. A few students braved exhaustion and took a brief walk into the Quarter, but most took advantage of hot showers and the potential for a full night’s sleep.

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Jazz Mass at St. Augustine’s, March 2016.

The next morning, most students ventured two blocks into Treme to attend the Jazz mass at St. Augustine’s Roman Catholic. I warned them that it was long, but for me it is a “not-to-be-missed” part of any visit to New Orleans, and I guess it’s hard to hide that level of sentiment. The students immediately felt the community and faith of the congregation of this, the oldest African-American Catholic Church in the nation’s first black neighborhood.

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Students with Mardi Gras Indian, March 2016

It was the perfect start to a day that appeared focused on both Treme and New Orleans parade culture. After mass, the class gathered at Congo Square in Louis Armstrong. This spot was where African slaves were permitted to drum, dance, and sell their wares on Sunday. And in the process, contributed to the preservation of African rhythms that became one of the catalysts for the development of jazz. And while waiting to link up with this Sunday’s second line parade, students were treated to the sights and sounds of Mardi Gras Indians who had marched down from Bayou St. John.

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Second Line, Esplanade Avenue, March 2016.

The Keep ‘N It Real Second Line appeared to be more elusive, or at least, it took longer for it to make its way towards where we were waiting. We ended up walking over to Claiborne and St. Bernard. Students first appeared taken aback by the singing, dancing, twerking, horn playing crowd that enveloped us, but most second lined through the Seventh Ward and Treme, and a few followed it all the way back to Bayou St. John. It was a big hit.

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Li’l Dizzy’s, March 2016

Appropriately, we reconnected at Li’l Dizzy’s, an Afro-Creole restaurant on the edge of Treme. Once again, we were treated to the best gumbo in the City, along with fried chicken, greens, macaroni and cheese, and bread pudding, all washed down with brewed ice tea. We tried valiantly, but the buffet won in the end. Some went back to the Center to rest after a full day of activities, while others followed the siren’s song of the French Quarter.

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Harry “Swamp Thing” Cook, Hot 8 Brass Band, March 2016.

At 10pm, we met up at the Howlin’ Wolf in the warehouse district for a performance by the Hot 8 Brass Band. Most had stereotyped images of brass band music, likely picturing a cross between marching band and traditional jazz. They were totally unprepared  for what hit them. In the end, most was stay through both sets to funked up music in a packed, brick room. For them a day of music, dancing, and traditional Creole cooking, would come to an exhausted, yet satisfying end. A day in which entertainment tested endurance and highlighted new and unexpected experiences.

And then there would be work.

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Rainy Monday Morning Monday, Mar 11 2013 

All Souls Episcopal Church, Lower Ninth Ward, March 2013.

All Souls Episcopal Church, Lower Ninth Ward, March 2013.

We’ve been in New Orleans about 36 hours and the weather has caught up with us. There are showers around this morning and there’s a good chance of thunderstorms in the area. It looks like our first day working at lowernine.org will be affected in some way or the other.

I’m sitting in a McDonald’s in Chalmette. The sun is not quite up. The service is friendly, but the term “fast food” is relative here. Fox is on TV; country is on the radio. One is reminded of being in Southern Louisiana when a patron crosses himself before eating his sausage biscuit.

Where to start: it has been an interesting and challenging weekend. Van number 2 got here first and settled into their accommodations at lowernine.org. I picked up my friend Kyle on the way in from the airport and got into the Lower Ninth about 6:00 pm in the evening. We went through the walk through at the All Souls Episcopal Church and Community Center just as Van number 1 arrived. The third van came in a couple of hours later.

IMG_0167The accommodations should be a challenge. Cots and air mattresses in the common areas. The problem is, we have to stow all bedding and belongings during the day because it is a community center. And more challenging: 33 volunteers (including 12 from the University of South Carolina) and two showers with spotty hot water, to say it nicely. We worked out a schedule for showers and kitchen use with the USC folks and the work week will tell how well it works.

I appropriated the privacy of the small library, which seems right. Group 1 stayed back a while to orient the incoming group, while Kyle and I headed into the City. The first agenda item was something to eat; the food court at the airport was but a distant memory. He wanted a poboy I wanted the briny taste of a muffaletta. Kyle told me he had read of a “new age” poboy place on Conti off of Bourbon. That sounded kind of like “military intelligence” of “jumbo shrimp,” so I had to bite, so to speak.

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Queen of the second line, March 2013.

It was in the back of the Erin Rose bar; the dining room as about 10 X 10 feet and the menu was intriguing to say the least. I had a “Hot Muff”, a cross between a Cuban sandwich and a muffaletta and Kyle had something that involved sucking pig, I think, but it looked as delicious as mine tasted. While we were waiting with a group Asian twenty-somethings with Texas accents, when in walked this apparition; what I can only describe as a tricked-out, professional second line dancer named Jennifer Jones. As weird as that was, I had just seen her on a repeat of Anthony Bourdain’s “Layover” a couple of nights before. Kyle ate as I tried to talk to her and eat my sandwich at the same time. I took her picture and ventured forth to find the St. Joseph”s Parade — and lost. By the time we were ready to stop and watch it, it seemed to have melted away into the quarter and the after parade dinner/dance.

Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Tipitina's, Uptown, March 2013.

Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Tipitina’s, Uptown, March 2013.

While most of my students explored the French Quarter for the first time (with the few blocks on Bourbon to find eats I had pretty much reached my quota for the trip), Kyle and I headed uptown to catch the Dirty Dozen Brass Band at Tipitina’s. And it did not disappoint. While the personnel had shifted slightly from the last time, the heart and soul remained the same. They started at 11 pm; right on time for a 10 pm show and played through to 1 am. Because of the time, I crashed on Kyle’s sofa in Broadmoor.

By the time got to the Lower Ninth, the students were slowly emerging from their sleeping bags. We went to the local Walmart to buy groceries and provisions. And things continued to move slowly. We finally headed out late morning, with two of the groups exploring Armstrong Park and Congo Square on the edge of Treme. Afterwards, we all met at the Parkway Bakery on bayou St. John. Yes, poboys again. This time we went old school. I studied the menu over and over to find something new to order. The choices were myriad, but when you’ve tasted near perfection it’s hard to waiver; I went with the shrimp, fully dressed and a Barq’s. The wait was long, but it was worth it.

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With New Orleans class veterans, Kyle Murphy (2009 & 2011) and Kendra Hanlon (2010 & 2012), second line, March 2013.

Afterwards, most of us caught the beginning of the Keep ‘n It Real second line. It was overcast, but warm. The music was hot and the growing crowd was fully engaged. The students, Kyle and I were joined by another former student, Kendra. We all went well beyond the turn onto Broad Street. The students eventually peeled off while the three veterans soldiered on to the first stop before turning back.

We took in some music on Frenchmen Street: the ceremonial first Sunday afternoon at the Spotted Cat. We sat in Washington Square Park for a while, taking in the playing children, passersby, and chatty homeless. We met the entire group at the Praline Connection where students were introduced to the Afro-Creole menu and warm service. Among the etouffee, the ribs, the fried chicken, the red beans, and jambalaya were many smiles and full bellies.

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Dinner, Praline Connection, March 2013

I dropped Kyle off and headed up to Gentilly where we had been invited to a concert by Paul Sanchez at the Gentilly Baptist Church. Sanchez, along with singer Arsene DeLay and a couple of others gave us an hour and a half of mostly his songs, including a number of tunes from his musical “Nine Lives.” The students were rocking with the message of love and renewal and I got here some of favorites like “Fine in the Lower Nine,” Rebuild, Renew” and “Foot of Canal Street.”

The students, of course, headed back downtown. I followed them only so long to take a short walk on Frenchmen. I was tired form the second line and the clapping and the people watching. But I was not hungry. I had wisely taken the key so I headed back to All Souls, took a shower that might have been a degree or two warmer than body temperature and took it easy until they returned. I have to pace myself.

Besides, today we start to work.

Warning: my posts during spring break are usually the product of short blocks of down time, combined with reduced access to the internet. Because of time limitations (and poor eyesight) I most assuredly do not catch all typos and misspellings the first time around.  I apologize and please bear with me. I do hope to get around to correcting them during a more leisurely period.

Saturday, Feb 16 2013 

Keepin' It Real Second Line with the Too Be Continued Brass Band, March 2012.

Keepin’ It Real Second Line with the Too Be Continued Brass Band, March 2012.

A Tale of Two Cities Friday, Mar 26 2010 

Sunday was a sleepy, weird sort of day. I woke up early in my Central Business District hotel, even though I was exhausted. And, at the time, I didn’t know that I was coming down with an infection. The last thing I wanted was to be challenged intellectually, but I’ve often found that New Orleans does that to you; if you stop long enough to peer beneath the surface, the City is lousy with great puzzlements.

I walked down to the waterfront and got a large cup of cafe au lait, eschewing the beignets since I was going out for a pricey brunch later. For one, it was uncharacteristically cold and blustery, more typical of January than mid-March, and my fleece vest and windbreaker were ill-equipped to fight the chill. I took in the view of the river, as working tugs and barges busily plied the waters while a cruise liner was being outfitted for a trip to the Western Caribbean. Before heading to the brunch, I stopped by my hotel to warm up and do a bit of writing. I decided to drop a layer since I was only going around the block.

I met Burt and Jeannie at the Veranda of the Hotel Intercontinental around 12:30pm. My jeans and plaid shirt attested to the fact that this was not my scene, as I would usually be perched on the stool at some hole-in-the-wall diner. But as it turned out, we were not there for the creole-style buffet (which was quite varied and delicious), the make-your-own bloody Mary station (the pickled okra were a nice touch), or the opulently appointed surroundings and guests; we were there primarily for the music.

As well-heeled locals, convention attendees, and NCAA basketball fans passed in and out, we spent nearly two hours listening to Dr. Michael White on clarinet and Greg Stafford on trumpet, accompanied by guitar and bass, as they languidly went through their repertoire of traditional New Orleans music. The two had been in New Hampshire only 20 days before, but it was a pleasure to catch them in a more informal, albeit lavish, venue. Suits and ties notwithstanding, it would have been better still in some weathered dance hall; the local incubators for this music about a century ago.

During breaks we had a chance to catch up a bit. We all bemoaned the fact that the Indian parade had been postponed a week. Even though the sight of Mardi Gras Indians on St. Joseph’s Night had been a singular experience, I learned that when traveling in the company of folklorists that there’s always room for more local spectacle. That is when Greg offered that there was a second line parade winding its way through the Uptown neighborhoods. I knew I was in trouble and also, that I could not say no. Within moments of the music ending and paying our tab, we were in the car and heading Uptown.

We traced the route as outlined on Greg’s map, but could not find the parade anywhere. We finally decided to go to the end point — the intersection of Toledano and Rocheblave in the Broadmoor neighborhood. One guy had a grill set up and there were a few people milling about, but they assured us that the parade would end right there. We drove off again to know avail. Had it been cancelled? Did police force them away from their planned route? Or, as I suspected, did they find a nice cozy bar and decide not to brave wind-chills in the 30s? Given that I only had my windbreaker, that would have been my choice.

We passed through neighborhoods that were in trouble before Katrina. And the aftermath had left many homes, businesses and institutions in disrepair. And many of those residents, businesses, or institutions simply had not come back. But, there is a spirit that resides in the people who have returned and I feel it grow with every year I return. And I suspect that the Saints’ Super Bowl victory, coupled with the the fact that Katrina grows smaller in the City’s rear view mirror, is helping feed that spirit. That is not meant to suggest that serious problems remain, but these are a stubborn people with a strong sense of place, who cling tirelessly to tradition, especially if that tradition is somehow tied to having a good time.

So there we were: three, very white college professors, standing in the median (neutral ground in New Orleans-speak) of a working-class, African-American neighborhood, waiting for a neighborhood parade. We had no clue where it came from or why or for what purpose. But by the time we returned to the endpoint, there were a couple of hundred people, a half-dozen barbecues blazing and an equal number of pick-up trucks selling beer and soda off the back. I don’t have to use the adjective cold before “beer” or “soda,” because every damned thing was cold, especially me.

So, we wandered back to the neutral ground on Toledano and talked to some of those waiting for the second line. They were angry that the Indians’ Super Sunday parade had been postponed and blamed the City, not the notoriously unpredictable Indians. They also suspected that the NOPD had thrown this second line parade off route, thereby delaying its finale. Forget that there were planned stops at bars and private homes for refreshments along the way. My favorite response was from a woman about my age, who seemingly saw herself as an interpreter for us. In the midst of our conversation, in response to no question, she pointed to the meager second line coming up the street and said: “It’s Sunday and after church we want to party. It’s what we do.” And who can argue with that.

The second line included two or three social clubs, dressed to the nines, carrying fans or umbrellas or other symbols of their club. They danced to the drum rhythms and sousaphone-driven baseline of the Stooges Brass Band and another unidentified band. The crowd was far bigger than the parade and by they time it reached its end, the crowd had probably swollen to seven or eight hundred. The dancers and musicians occupied the center of the intersection and after a a couple of tunes, the former retreated to the warmth of one of the bars and the latter shouldered their instruments and headed home or to their next gig. We left as the crowd refocused on po-boys filled with freshly grilled meat. Still full from my extravagant brunch, I was just glad to get into the warmth of the car.

We headed downtown because Jeannie wanted to see Musician’s Village in the Upper Ninth Ward and some of Brad Pitt’s “Make It Right 9” homes in the Lower Ninth Ward. Afterwards, we tried to go to the late Ernie K-Doe’s Mother-in-Law Lounge (below) on Claiborne, but it was locked shut.

I had Burt drop me off at my hotel, went in to thaw out, and then dressed about as warmly as I could. I took Royal Street across the Quarter and for one last time enjoyed the musical buffet that is Frenchmen Street. After savoring jazz at the Spotted Cat and DBA, I ended up at Blue Nile. There I saw another side of New Orleans, as they were holding their weekly salsa night. Free dance lessons, Latin food a la carte, and recognition of the fastest growing segment of New Orleans’ population.

As enjoyable as it was, I stepped out into the cold and crossed the Quarter on Decatur Street. The streets were close to deserted, which to me symbolized the fact that my annual trip was drawing to a close.