So uhh, I have one question for y’all. Ya like jazz? Ok well, Bee Movie reference aside, I’m back from a week-long break where I visited New Orleans for the first time. In an effort to start processing it, I’m gonna reflect with my favorite lens: music.
I have this thing that happens to me every spring where for whatever reason, things move so fast that I find myself absolutely lost on my sense of time. Like one moment I’m enjoying some new flowers that have sprung on previously bare trees and the next moment I’m staring at dead petals on the floor as someone asks me what my plans for July 4th are. This year, I’ve been trying to make a more concerted effort to slow down and take inventory of each moment.
That was the vibe I carried with me as I toured New Orleans and luckily for me, the city wanted me to slow down too.
Now, before I start our musical tour of NOLA, I just want to preface this by saying that I was very much tempted to think about things like work (I’ve been managing two big projects this month, one of which kicked off while on break), sticky friendship situations that I’ve been processing, communicating with my parents more as my therapist advised, and literally what are the next year and 5 years of my life looking like. It’s been a lot, so being in the moment was harder than I expected. But I’m so thankful for the ways the city helped me just sit and soak.
When I first got to New Orleans, I truly didn’t have expectations, other than the idea that I’d eventually hear jazz music somewhere. But I’ll be honest, I didn’t even know what kind of jazz music. However, the first night in the city very loudly told me “you can’t put me in a box.”
See, my friend Noelle and I landed on a Monday night and found ourselves wandering Bourbon St., the famous street where you can drink from plastic cups in public and wander through a bunch of different bars and clubs playing all kinds of music. I’d never been anywhere this alive on a Monday night. It was bonkers.
The first club we checked out had a live band playing soul covers with a disco ball lighting up the room. The band was taking requests and tips, which I soon learned every act does in NOLA. They launched into a really impassioned cover of Chris Stapleton’s “Tennessee Whiskey” and it reminded me that I was in the South but that NOLA did the South different.
From there my friend and I kept walking and we heard a guy on a guitar doing a cover of John Lennon’s “Imagine” before we settled into a dueling piano bar giving rousing renditions of Billy Joel and Elton John’s greatest hits. This was when I started to lose track of time. It no longer was 10pm CT on a Monday. By God, it was 9 o’ clock on a Saturday and I was part of the regular crowd that shuffled in.
Then we landed in a rock n’ roll club where my high school self would’ve said she belonged in the late 70s. One of the lead singers here had the rock and roll growl DOWN. The way she absolutely slayed Jet’s “Are You Gonna Be My Girl?” had me like “uh yeah, of course I wanna be your girl!” Sitting at this club made me realize I had totally underestimated what New Orleans was capable of because even though this was not the jazz music I expected, the passionate spirit of it was here and adamant about it.
To round out the night, we stumbled upon a classic jazz club as we waited for the Lyft to take us to our Airbnb. I didn’t know what song was playing, because I don’t know jazz music like that but I was still fully convinced it was Saturday night.
On Tuesday, we wandered the French Quarter and stumbled upon a few different bands busking outside of different restaurants. We heard jazz renditions of jazz standards and even a soulful jazz version of “My Girl” before checking out the New Orleans jazz museum.
When I proposed we check out this museum, I was determined to actually learn about jazz and its history. And it was eye opening to learn how jazz was born in NOLA.
One of the most interesting things I learned about how music evolved in the city had to do with a place called Congo Square. That square was a place where slaves in 19th century New Orleans were legally allowed to gather and make music on Sundays. Musicians brought all kinds of instruments to the gathering: banjos, drums, even gourds to make music. It’s there that African and European music merged and a bunch of different genres basically took shape. The history there is so rich, I know I’m not doing it justice right now but please research it if you’re curious!
My favorite exhibit in the museum was an art collection of the New Orleans music scene, legends and all, painted by a local artist named James Michalopoulos. These paintings gave me chills to look at because they communicated such life, as if you could hear what was happening. It was here that I began to understand what the city wanted to remind me, best distilled in a quote from the artist:
“Life can be chaotic and disordered in its unfolding. Seemingly unordered but simply driven by laws and dynamics not readily discernable. The energy and movement in the change arrests my attention, I attend to the timeless in this. Music allows me to dance along the way.”-James Michalopoulos
Life lately for me has been a whirlwind of good and bad, but definite chaos. And I’ll admit, I don’t think I’ve been dancing on the right beat. But even if I’m not on the right beat now, that doesn’t mean I won’t catch up to it eventually. Or better yet, I’ll find a way to dance on a different beat.
Big picture life lesson in tow, the next music adventure I found myself on was a show at the famed Preservation Hall.
This was one of my favorite parts of the trip. I thought the prestige of Preservation Hall meant we were going to a fancy-schmancy jazz hall on Bourbon St. So I was surprised when we entered a cramped, black box-theater style room with no-AC and told to not record any part of the performance. The next 50-ish minutes of my life were pure, unaltered music appreciation. This band that’s literally won Grammys and is going on tour with Josh Groban transported us to the 19th century. They played songs that reflected an evolution of jazz in New Orleans and I was re-reminded how much I love a good brass instrument. If you’re considering a trip to New Orleans, you have to see a show here.
On Wednesday we went on a swamp tour and I was reminded just how much I love swamp rock, specifically the music of Creedence Clearwater Revival. I have so much love for and many fun facts about this band. I want to do them justice in a Musical Loves of My Life post, but I’ll briefly mention that listening to them while on the boat made my heart warm. I know my mom would love the vibes on that boat.
For our last night in New Orleans, we checked out the other main music street in NOLA, Frenchmen St. And I’m not afraid to say it, this place was way better than Bourbon St. Here, we heard local artists perform standards in their own ways with their original stuff sprinkled in. I had two favorites here: Cristina Kaminis, a jazzy singer with a big voice from Mexico City and the New Breed Brass Band.
Cristina had just started her set at Cafe Negril when we sat down and I decided this was the best place to try a Hurricane in slushie form. She and her band breezed through Brazilian bossa nova, popular jazz standards, and music that sounded like my childhood. I was in awe of the way she made the stage her home; it felt like we were all just pals in her backyard and not total strangers at a bar. My favorite moment of her set was when she played an original, unreleased Vicente Fernandez-style song. As the only other Mexicana in the bar, I absolutely felt at home. Y’all gotta check her out.
The New Breed Brass Band made me completely forget it was a Wednesday night. I honestly thought it was Thursday night and almost got worried that we were gonna miss our flight back to LA. Needless to say, they brought down the house at the Blue Nile and I was entranced.
Thursday was less traditionally musical as we tried to see as much as we could while navigating public transportation from one side of the city to the other on our way to the airport: the right amount of chaos to make me excited about coming back home tbh. Coming home meant collapsing into my bed from the 10,000+ steps walked each day for 3 days and catching up on sleep as best I could. It’s only as of Monday of this week that I’ve started processing what all happened.
So what’s the verdict on NOLA? You gotta come for the music scene because it WILL blow your mind. There’s so much life in this city and I can see why many people love this city. Special thanks to my friend Noelle for adventuring with me and to my friend Morgan for giving me all the tips on how to appreciate this city. I need to go back with her as a tour guide.