Jazz in New Orleans: A 2009 Status Report

Wade Luquet By

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I am often asked how someone can help New Orleans. The best way to help is to visit. Come to the city, enjoy it, let it change you... and leave tips.
It is difficult, if not impossible, to destroy a culture. Hurricane Katrina tried to do so in New Orleans, but New Orleans is proving too strong to be taken down by the flooding that soaked eighty percent of the city when the poorly built federal levees failed. While hundreds of the city's musicians lost their instruments and music collections, many of those same musicians returned within a few weeks to open up venues such as Rock n' Bowl, Preservation Hall, and Donna's. Street musicians returned and played for the recovery workers as they cleared out the old refrigerators, cars, and home debris that littered the city. And while it took over a year for tourists to return in significant numbers to the city, they have done so and the French Quarter is again active and quite clean, thanks to a new sanitation contract that calls for "Disney-like" cleaning services.. And I am pleased to report that the jazz scene is as active as ever in New Orleans.

In most cities, jazz is a destination—clubs in various parts of the city that one must intentionally seek out to listen to the music they long to hear. In New Orleans, jazz is its soundtrack. It would be impossible to walk through the French Quarter and not hear jazz flowing from a street musician or a club. All of the city's children grow up hearing this musical form flowing through its streets. Some schools even begin their day with its students singing classic New Orleans tunes such as "Iko Iko" or "Little Liza Jane." Young musicians learn by playing with older musicians on front porches in neighborhoods throughout the city. Katrina was only a temporary setback for jazz in New Orleans.

It is difficult to separate the venue from the musicians in New Orleans. There are numerous places where great jazz is heard, and each venue lends its personality to the music being played. Preservation Hall, Donna's, Fritzel's, The Palm Court, Maison Bourbon, Snug Harbor, dba, The Spotted Cat, and Ray's Boom Boom Room are all within a short walk of each other. Vaughn's, Tippitinas, Rock 'n Bowl, The Maple Leaf, Sweet Loraine's, and Bullet's are all a short drive from the French Quarter. Each has music seven nights a week playing traditional jazz, New Orleans funk, or Zydeco, and all are drawing sizable crowds of locals and tourists.

The musicians in New Orleans continue to be first rate. Ben Jaffe still draws great traditional bands to Preservation Hall—a venue his parents founded in 1962. Many of the groups playing there are third and fourth generation musicians including the Paulin Brothers. Music director and bassist Brad Truby has drawn great talent to Fritzel's on Bourbon Street including clarinetists Tim Laughlin and Tom Fischer, pianists John Royen, Steve Pastorius, and Richard Scott, coronetist Connie Jones, and singer Banu Gibson. Donna and Charlie Sims host brass bands nightly that often include drummers Herlin Riley and Shannon Powell. Tuesday nights at the Maple Leaf are reserved for the funk brass of the Rebirth Brass Band while Thursdays at Vaughn's features trumpeter and local personality Kermit Ruffins, who also opened his own club, Sydney's Saloon, just outside the French Quarter. Rock 'n Bowl's John Blancher has found a winning combination of bowling, music, and dancing that includes a Wednesday swing night, Thursday Zydeco, and Friday New Orleans jazz lineup. And Tippitinas continues to feature the best of the new sounds of New Orleans. Snug Harbor brings Ellis Marsalis to the club most Fridays while its neighbors, The Spotted Cat and dba, feature old jazz and swing played by groups like The New Orleans Jazz Vipers and The Palmetto Bug Stompers.

There is no lack of places to go to find great music. And interestingly, new clubs are opening up. Chickie Wah Wah on Canal Boulevard is quickly becoming a hot spot with good music in a funky atmosphere. While only two jazz clubs remain on Bourbon Street, a new club was opened at the Royal Sonesta Hotel by the talented and very busy trumpeter Irvin Mayfield. Mayfield's Jazz Playhouse will feature acts that range from jazz to burlesque and cabaret in a venue that he hopes will allow its patrons to connect with the music and its makers.

Some of the best musicians can be found playing on the streets of New Orleans for tips. The Quarters' charm and beauty invite strolling and looking for these important members of the musical ambiance of New Orleans. Visitors often start their mornings at Café du Monde listening to trumpeter and singer Hack Bartholomew, or have the pleasure of spending the afternoon listening to the guitar and violin duo of Tanya and Dorice. Grandpa Elliot can be found at the corner of Royal and Toulouse most afternoons singing with his beautiful voice and playing some of the sweetest harmonica ever played. Grandpa Elliot is a true New Orleans gem, and many videos exist of him on youtube, including an amazing multi-street musician version of "Stand by Me" produced by the organization Playing for Change. Royal Street is often closed to vehicle traffic, where clarinetist Doreen Ketchens will set up shop with her band, or brass groups like The Loose Marbles will slide a piano out of an alley and play for locals, tourists, and dancers who will look for this group so they can practice their Charlestons and Lindys in the middle of the street. In front of the Cabildo in Jackson Square, brass bands can be found often fronted by members of the Hot 8 Brass Band and trombonist Glen David Andrews.

New Orleans is alive with music, and jazz tourists will not be disappointed if they do a little planning and follow their ears. Music listings with times and venues can be found at Offbeat and are searchable by date. Additional information can be found at the web site of the local public music station WWOZ. In addition, there is a live music feed from the station, playing mostly New Orleans music groups. As much fun as planning your week is the unexpected and serendipitous—stumbling upon a new find on the streets and in the small clubs. New Orleans is full of surprises that way—just make sure to use your ears and take a moment to enjoy your find.

Sadly, there are large parts of the city that are still damaged and abandoned from the flooding, yet the New Orleans music scene has recovered nicely. What it needs most is avid jazz fans to give witness to its recovery. I am often asked how someone can help New Orleans. The best way to help is to visit. Come to the city, enjoy it, let it change you... and leave tips. When tourists leave a tip to a musician or a waiter, they are giving direct relief to someone who surely needs it. Many of these musicians lost everything in the flood, yet they were some of the first to return to bring the character back to New Orleans. Many of the people who returned in the first few months after Katrina noticed how quiet the city was with the music silenced. The music is back. Make your plans now to enjoy this city and the music it has to offer.

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