Last week, Rosanna and I went to New Orleans for a week. Neither of us had ever been before but we had a grand time exploring as much of the city as we could. It happened to be the week before Mardi Gras and the whole city was decked out in beads, lights and decorations. There were multiple parades per day; all the paraders were decked out in elaborate costumes and waved from fantastically large floats, tossing strings of plastic beads to parade-goers.
With New Orleans having such a rich musical history, we went to as much live music as we could get to. There were jazz venues all over town, and buskers were littered about. Sometimes a singer-guitarist, sometimes a full trad band, and occasionally there’d be a sousaphone player wandering about playing 2-feel bass lines.
We went and saw the legendary Preservation Hall Jazz Band at Preservation Hall. “Hall” is a bit generous, it was really a tiny room only slightly bigger than Egan’s Ballard Jam House in Seattle. There were 7-ish rows of seating for those who bought tickets beforehand ($40-$50, yikes!). 20 bucks cash at the door got you standing room or sitting on the floor right in front of the band. It was a really tight squeeze, but doable for an 45 minute set. As I understand it, the lineup for the band changes from night to night. The instrumentation we saw was a pretty typical trad setup: trumpet, trombone, sax, piano, bass, drums. The band was tight and did nothing wrong, but I didn’t find it particularly exciting. Trumpet and piano solos were fun but the trombone didn’t play anything very interesting and the sax solos were mostly variations on the melody that didn’t go anywhere. Solos were always played in exactly the same order too (sax, trombone, trumpet, piano, bass and maybe drums), and since they were playing all old standards, the set felt very predictable. I did admire their ability to balance volume though; nothing was amplified, yet I never had trouble hearing the bass even when all three horns were going.
My favorite part of the city by far was Frenchmen Street, just a couple blocks from the French Quarter. Over ten different music venues line both sides of the street along two or three blocks, and each venue had music nightly. Most venues had no cover but would have a drink minimum. It’s my understanding from talking to a couple professional musicians in the area that musicians often work for tips only. I have to wonder how sustainable a living that is, especially for a city that places such great importance on music. We sampled a couple venues over the week; there was a lot of music (seemingly mostly trad jazz and jazz manouche), but a number of the bands felt somewhat mediocre albeit competent. I did see more banjos and sousaphones in a week than I have in probably the past year, which was exciting.
I chatted with a banjo player in one of the trad bands after they finished a set. He was telling me that most banjo players in New Orleans either play 6 or 4 string banjos (tuned either like a guitar, or the top 4 strings of a guitar). Given how they play jazz, I suppose this should be unsurprising, but I still noticed it as different from the mostly 5 string banjos I’ve seen around Seattle.
One night after leaving one of the venues on Frenchmen, we heard brass and drums up the street and headed up to investigate. There was a ginormous brass band busking on a street corner: 4 trumpets, 2 trombones, 1 sousa, 2 snares, 2 bass drums. They were loud but so infectious that they drew a crowd of close to 100 people, spilling out into the street blocking traffic well past 10pm. The music was super happy second-line sounding and incredibly fun. Speaking to one of the trumpet players later on, I found out they called themselves the Young Fellas. They seemed to be a really informal hang/jam; the trumpet player said they mostly hung out and played brass band standards.
Snug Harbor appears to be the cool fancy club on Frenchmen. While most of the other venues had their bands playing near the entrance to attract passersby (yes the whole street is super noisy), Snug Harbor’s stage is in a closed off room deep past the restaurant area. They had a sizable stage, about Jazz Alley sized (another Seattle venue; I compare everything to Seattle 🙂 ) and had tables and seating right in front, as well as a little balcony area wrapping around.
We saw two acts at Snug Harbor, the first being the Stanton Moore Trio. I’m mostly familiar with his band Galactic (funky jazz) so it was actually pretty fun to hear him play in a piano trio with more straight-ahead material. All three musicians were really powerful players; the band put out a lot of bright energy. The upright bassist kicked in effects pedals in one of his solos, which was entertaining.
The other band we saw at Snug Harbor was Delfeayo Marsalis (of the Marsalis jazz dynasty) and the Uptown Jazz Orchestra. I’ve been listening to a bunch of big band recordings lately and it’s been awhile since I’ve seen a big band that swung this hard, so this was a real treat. They played a couple Benny Carter arrangements, a Basie chart for “All of Me”, and a couple of Delfeayo’s compositions. Everyone on stage was a very accomplished instrumentalist, and as a group they were a blast. They had a great stage presence, joking and teasing each other both between and during songs. Delfeayo had no problem yelling “2 and 4, people, 2 and 4!” when an audience member started to clap on 1 and 3. All in all, solid arrangements, fantastic solos, great fun.