Travel Destinations

Monday, January 19, 2015

Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans Music

Bean & The Boys featuring Kathleen Moore at 21st Amendment New Orleans
Bean & The Boys featuring Kathleen Moore at The 21st Amendment La Louisiane.
New Orleans is like no place in the world I have ever been when it comes to music.  Chris McIntyre of 21st Amendment told us New Orleans does three things well, cocktails, food, and music, and nothing could be truer.  No matter the time of day, the music of New Orleans can be heard somewhere in the French Quarter.  It calls to you like the Sirens’ song, plaintive melodies drifting down the streets, beckoning for you to follow.  And follow you should. 

New Orleans Music History

Louis "Sachmo" Armstrong Statue New Orleans
Louis "Sachmo" Armstrong statue in Louis Armstrong Park, once Congo Square.
New Orleans’ music roots are in jazz.  New Orleans jazz started as far back as the 1700s.  The slaves of the colonists were allowed Sundays off, so they gathered in Congo Square between Rampart and Basin Street, now Louis Armstrong Park.  The slaves would play music and sing and dance.  The music grew as more slaves were brought into the area.  There could be 500 to 600 unsupervised slaves in Congo Square on any given Sunday.  The New Orleans music scene later moved to the red-light district of Storyville in the late 1800s, where the first jazz was played.  New Orleans jazz became extremely popular and was introduced to the rest of the world with the help of Louis Armstrong.

New Orleans Street Music

New Orleans street musicians are the heart and soul of the New Orleans music scene.  New Orleans street music comes in all genres.  A lone guitarist might be playing a little bit of country; a foursome of young men might be playing a little bit of rock ‘n’ roll.  There’s something for everyone.  Most New Orleans musicians play along Royal Street, but they play on other streets throughout the French Quarter as well. 

Tornado Brass Band New Orleans
Tornado Brass Band in front of St. Louis Cathedral-Basilica and Jackson Square.
One of my favorite New Orleans music styles is Dixieland. There’s just something about the powerful sounds of the trumpets, trombones, saxophones, and sousaphones.  Our first morning as we walked through the French Quarter to the St. Louis Cathedral-Basilica, my heart began to beat faster as the sounds of Hello, Dolly! filled the air.  The Tornado Brass Band has been playing in some formulation since the 1970s, though some of the players have changed throughout the years.  They play jazz classics like What a Wonderful World and Bye Bye Black Blackbird.  The Tornado Brass Band doesn’t just play on the streets of New Orleans.  They have also played at Preservation Hall and at music festivals in other states.  People line up to have their picture taken with the band.  Another memory that will stick with me forever is the sound of When the Saints Go Marching In pulsing through the streets of the French Quarter as New Year’s Eve revelers marched back to bars, hotels, and homes after the Fleur de Lis drop and fireworks.

Tanya (violin) and Dorise (guitar) New Orleans
Tanya and Dorise wowing the crowds along Royal Street.
Brass instruments aren’t the only popular instrument along the streets of the French Quarter.  Another strong sound of New Orleans street performers is that of the violin.  There’s something very different about hearing a violin being played on the street that causes goose bumps.  The much loved New Orleans duo, Tanya and Dorise, can often be found on Royal Street.  They’ve been playing together for 10 years.  Tanya Huang plays the violin and Dorise Blackmon plays the guitar.  Their music is an eclectic mix including Tennessee Waltz, Hotel California, and I Will Survive.  Tanya and Dorise are an integral part of the New Orleans music scene and it is widely believed the character of Annie Tee in HBO’s Treme is based on Tanya.

Violin Street Musicians New Orleans
More violinists in the French Quarter.
If you’re really lucky, you may get the chance to participate in another uniquely New Orleans street music tradition, the second line.  Second lines are brass band parades typically associated with jazz funerals.  Jazz funerals start with mournful music as the hearse, family, brass band, and second line, composed of friends, acquaintances, and even strangers, proceed to the cemetery.  Leaving the cemetery, the music becomes joyful because the loved one has gone to a better world.  Today second lines are also led by Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs, which originated as benevolent societies that helped members pay for health care costs and got them through other hard times.

New Orleans Music Venues

New Orleans music isn’t only found on the streets.  There are a number of music venues throughout the city where both traditional and modern New Orleans music can be enjoyed.

The Ibervillianaires at 21st Amendment New Orleans
The Ibervillianaires at 21st Amendment.
My favorite place at which we enjoyed live music while in New Orleans was The 21st Amendment La Louisiane.  21st Amendment is a speakeasy style bar in the French Quarter, a flashback to the 1920s Prohibition era, which serves hand-crafted cocktails made with house-made syrups and infused spirits.  It’s a small, cozy place with red walls, black and white photos of mobsters decorating those walls, and live music playing every night.  We visited 21st Amendment twice during our trip.  The first night we listened to Bean & The Boys featuring Kathleen Moore and the second night we returned to a band that has been playing at the bar since it’s opening, The Ibervillianaires, a group with an old sound but modern lyrics and a vocalist who also provides percussion by tapping.

Leah Rucker at The Maison New Orleans
Jazz singer Leah Rucker at The Maison.
A number of New Orleans music venues are centered along one street, Frenchmen Street.  Frenchmen Street is just northeast of the French Quarter and the first few blocks leading away from the French Quarter are filled with live music venues.  We chose to visit The Maison, a restaurant, bar, and live music venue.  That evening Leah Rucker was singing with her band.  Leah Rucker is a local jazz singer who sings traditional and swinging jazz.  Other popular live music spots along Frenchmen Street are Snug Harbor Jazz Bistro, The Spotted Cat Music Club, d.b.a., and Blue Nile.

Kris Tokarski Trio at The Bombay Club New Orleans
Kris Tokarski Trio at The Bombay Club's martini bar.
Some French Quarter restaurants also have live music.  We ate Christmas dinner at The Bombay Club, a restaurant and martini bar that recently reopened under new management.  The Bombay Club hosts live music every night for its patrons.  One frequently returning artist is Kris Tokarski, a jazz pianist and composer who sometimes plays by himself and other times plays with other musicians.

Blue Nile Live Music Venue on Frenchmen Street New Orleans
Blue Nile on Frenchmen Street.
A popular place to enjoy traditional New Orleans jazz is Preservation Hall.  Preservation Hall opened in 1961 and its mission is to honor and preserve traditional jazz.  There are no drinks or food served at Preservation Hall, though you can bring in a go cup.  It’s an informal setting with bench and floor-cushion seating as well as standing room.  Preservation Hall is open almost every night of the year and has three shows a night.

New Orleans Music Festivals

For travelers looking for a larger organized music event, there are a number of music festivals that occur in New Orleans throughout the year.  Perhaps the most popular is the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.  Jazz Fest has been running for over 40 years, is held at the Fair Grounds Race Course, and features both local musicians and mainstream performers.  If you’re more interested in the local music and local flavors of New Orleans, the French Quarter Festival is the largest free music festival in the South and specializes in New Orleans music and food.  During French Quarter Fest there are over 20 stages and over 90 food and beverage booths set up all over the French Quarter, with over 1,000 musicians performing for attendees.  Fans of Louis Armstrong will want to attend the Satchmo Summerfest, a weekend long celebration of Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong’s life and music.  For a full listing of New Orleans’ music festivals, visit the calendar of events on the New Orleans tourism board’s website.

Rossi Gang in the French Quarter New Orleans
The Rossi Gang, a grease jazz band, on Royal Street.
Now that I’ve been, I do understand what it means to miss New Orleans, especially the music.  I already miss what the song describes as “a Creole tune that fills the air.”  Whether or not we ever get the opportunity to visit again (fingers crossed that we do), I will always have the memories of New Orleans accompanied by the soundtrack of New Orleans’ street music and music venues.  I do suggest buying CDs from whichever artists move you the most so if your memories begin to fade, all you need to do is pop in one of those CDs and be transported back to your time in New Orleans.

Thank you to the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau and the New Orleans Hotel Collection for hosting our trip to New Orleans and making this post possible.  As always, all opinions are my own.  For updates on what is happening in New Orleans, follow the New Orleans CVB on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Travel the World: A guide to New Orleans music including street music, live music venues, and music festivals.

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Katherine Belarmino and Romeo Belarmino are the authors of Travel the World, a travel blog for the everyday working stiff. They work full-time in non-travel related jobs, but take every opportunity they can to travel the world during their limited vacation time.