Do You Know What It Means (To Miss New Orleans)

I haven’t really been able to write about New Orleans. Part of it is that I’ve been on the road. But that’s an excuse. I haven’t wanted to think about it. New Orleans, even though I only visited once, figures so deeply in my growth as a young man that I can’t bear to think of what has happened to it.

I’ve written a little about my discovery of jazz. In the year or two afterwards I started diving in deeper—broadening my listening to many of the 60s-era greats, developing an appreciation for the avant garde. But I didn’t understand the roots of the music. (And I certainly wasn’t going to learn listening to Wynton Marsalis, who, though he was pretty well grounded in the traditions, was compositionally just as avant garde as his brother, in an extremely traditionalist sort of way.) So I was completely unprepared for what I found when we rolled into New Orleans and stumbled into the back of Preservation Hall.

To set the context, this was the same trip as our nocturnal visit to William Faulkner’s house. So, by the time we rolled into New Orleans we had been on the road for four days and several thousand miles, all on a bus and a small minivan, and were looking and smelling and feeling awful. We had a gig that first night, a concert at the Church of the Most Holy Name of Jesus (aka Holy Name) at Loyola, which is a story in and of itself, and then a reception hosted by the local alumni club with liquid refreshments, followed by a mass exodus to a local student watering hole. It was there that I had my first (and last, I think) Hurricane. But I still hadn’t really seen the city.

The next morning I walked with friends to the Café du Monde, through the French Quarter, past a voudoun shop or two, into a storefront for a po’ boy, out and along a levee. I particularly remember the levee, as the heat and humidity were really getting to me, but I was still awestruck by the scale of the thing. It didn’t look like something that could be broken apart like a cracker.

But the jazz? That night I don’t remember where we ate or anything else, just lining up with Poulson Reed and John McLaughlin outside Preservation Hall, where there was a crowd—despite the lack of drinks, or anything else that might pass for conventional tourist New Orleans, inside. What there was, was the band. Percy and Willie Humphrey were still there, in their 70s or 80s but still playing. A big sign behind the band said, “Requests $2. ‘Saints’ $10,” suggesting that perhaps they had been asked to play “When The Saints Go Marching In” one too many times. The music was rough, unpolished, sloppy in some ways, but amazingly compelling. I felt the hair on the back of my neck stand up. This was both stranger and more wonderful than I could have expected.

The night ended some hours later in Pat O’Brien’s, but for me, it was over when we left Preservation Hall. A seed had been planted in me that led to my exploring not only older jazz but also other American musical experiences—the “old, weird America” that shared the roughness and power of the seven septuagenarians in a rundown old unpainted hall playing for a rapt audience on wooden benches.

And now, it’s gone.

Update: Greg points me to a story that suggests there is a happier ending.