Visions of New Orleans

1993. Six of us from university piled into an RV (owned by the rather trusting parents of one our members) and headed south, with the vague plan to see New Orleans and perhaps a beach somewhere too. The days in the Big Easy blur together now, my memory a victim of time and age, but certain details I hope remain.

We spent a long afternoon wandering about the fringes of the French Quarter, lounging in Jackson Square and hunting used books. I’m still shocked what I found that day (Wittgenstein and A.J. Ayer), in the time before the rise of e-commerce and Barnes and Noble, when I would routinely spend as much on the thin paperbacks for my philosophy courses as literature students spent on their anthologies. That day, however, both volumes were mine for less than $10.

As night fell, we went further into the Quarter, looking for what we came for — jazz. Unlike most of the other college students on Bourbon Street, we had no interest in cheap drinks and strip clubs. We started the evening as anyone should, standing in line to enter Preservation Hall. In one sense it is a tourist experience, but the band does preserve the roots of city, playing old fashioned, big band jazz. After the show, we wanted something a bit more authentic, so we walked up and down Bourbon Street (which was closed to car traffic every night of the year. The crowds on weekday night post-Mardi Gras were enormous. I couldn’t imagine Mardi Gras, truthfully). The seedy underbelly of the city (and the Quarter) is on full display at night, with strip club owners attempting to lure patrons into their establishments. It’s still early in the evening, but the alcohol has been flowing freely, and people around us are drunk, and loud.

We stop outside a club, the Open Door, to discuss our options. As we chat, on the other side of the window, the older African American man playing the piano smiles and waves for us to come in. We take this as a sign and file into the club, find a table, and enjoy the show. Afterwards, some of my friends, being better equipped socially than I will ever be, found the old man and began a conversation. He told us about a few more clubs we should visit, and said he’d be playing at a piano bar later that night, and we should meet up with him again. He promised after his set there, he would take us to a “real” jazz club. We shook hands and said our good byes, and I wondered if we would actually see the man again.

The club was at the far end of the Quarter, so we spent the next hour or so walking about off Bourbon Street. When you leave the mayhem of Bourbon Street, you really are taken to another time and place. I peek through gates and fences to see beautiful gardens and squares. People sat at on their balconies, enjoying the cool spring air.

An hour or so later, we are sitting around a piano, listening to our new friend and thoroughly enjoying ourselves. We were mostly musicians ourselves, so this moment was perfect — sitting in a quiet bar, listening to a wide array of jazz, listening to stories about the jazz scene and this man’s place in it. As his set wound done, the man asked if we were interested in going to a “real” jazz club with him. Of course, was the answer. We filed out of the club and headed away from the quarter.

At this point, the naivete of six college students was readily apparent. Promptly, we left the Quarter, crossed a rather road, and entered another neighborhood. We were clearly out of our element, but somehow, comforted by the fact that our friend seemed to know every person we passed by name. We walked further and futher away from the Quarter (and further and further away from our home away from home, the RV). Finally, the man paused outside what seemed to be an empty storefront and announced “here we are, boys.” For a moment I thought Here it is. I hope someone finds our bodies sooner rather than later. He swung open the door and with a flourish asked us to enter.

Immediately we heard the music from the band inside, and the small room was nearly filled with people of every stripe. It was loud, so conversation was difficult, but we found a section of empty wall and took in the scene. It was apparent this was the real deal, and most of the clubs in the Quarter were little more than tourist traps. I spotted the drummer from Harry Connick’s trio (this was prior to Connick becoming the next Frank Sinatra), and I’m sure if I were better versed in the New Orleans scene, I would have seen plenty of other top musicians. A few moments later, a fellow who was leaning against the wall a few feet from us stepped forward, produced a trumpet, and joined in. Amazing.

An hour or so later, three of us decided we should walk back across town and recover the RV (before someone else did), and head back to the club and pick the other half up. If we felt a bit out of place on the walk to the club, we were most certainly out of place now — three white college kids walking through a bad part of town well after midnight. We high-tailed it back to the Quarter, and soon enough we back near the art museum where our home away from home was parked. We managed to retrace our steps in the RV and find the club (did I think we looked out of place walking? Try being in an older RV).

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I’m not sure what to say about the unfolding events on the Gulf Coast. Truthfully, this is sort of thing that we only hear about in other countries, or watch in the movie theater. For much of that area, vignettes like the one above are all that will remain.