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Story and Photos by Brad WalsethHow fortuitous it is for the Chicago Jazz fan to receive the opportunity to visit our sister city to the south, the Crescent City of New Orleans. When the opportunity arose recently to make the trip for my day gig, I leapt at the chance.
What is it about New Orleans that gets under one's skin so? Surely the delicious food available everywhere - the smell of spicy seafood cooking fills the air; the drinks; of course the music - ranging from traditional jazz to uproarious zydeco, country to full-blown rock and roll, street performers to the polished nightclub entertainers; or is it the people - a multi-cultural stew whose friendly, generous nature and joie de vivre is like a slap to the face of the typical, benumbed modern visitor. Obviously, the answer to the question is all of the above, and it is the combination of all these things and more that give New Orleans its famous spirit.
My responsibilities ended after a drive across the nearly 25 mile-long bridge - the "causeway" across Lake Ponchartrain and back, and I was free to experience a bit of the food, like the delicious shrimp "po"-boy at Mother's, the delicious and potent "Hurricane" drink at Pat O'Brien's and the colorful music of the fabled city. For those who have never been there, the Vieux Carre/French Quarter is filled with clubs presenting live music in a wide variety of styles. Walking down the street, you are tempted to stop in every place to sample a bit of the music. From country to lounge piano acts, funk and R&B and hard rock to alternative, jazz to zydeco to karaoke at the Cat's Meow, the music never seems to stop. Fortunately was there for the Krewe de Vieux, a parade filled with colorful floats, biting political commentary and marching bands - and the only remaining parade that still winds its way through the French Quarter. And although Bourbon Street seems at time like a giant frat party, I saw no trouble.
Some great music can certainly be found in the Quarter. We caught some energetic Zydeco all up and down Bourbon Street, and some excellent jazz at Maison Bourbon, but the highlights for me were to be found on Frenchman Street, just outside the Quarter proper. Delfeayo Marsalis played a great set at Snug Harbor, where the mustard sauce was exceptional. Some old-timers say this street is what Bourbon Street used to be before the T-shirt shops sprang up.
Throughout it all, I am amazed at the friendliness of the people. I buy a white "Elvis"-style coat at a second hand store and stroll through the streets and strangers cheer and hug me. Damaged buildings stand beside ones with a fresh coat of brightly colored paint. Someone has scrawled on a wall - "Sing Anyway."
There is something about a people who dwell on the mud below sea level; people who celebrate life with their funerals; a city, whose people endured the tragedy of Katrina, and yet still fight on while the rest of the country seems to have forgotten. As I peer out the airplane window at the immensity of the Gulf below, which stretches out and into a merger with a curtain of clouds, I feel an aching fondness for these dwellers of mud who stare the full force of Nature in the face and sing anyway.
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