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Shining Brass and Broken Glasses in New Orleans

Originally published August 15, 2014 in The Press Tribune
Jackson Square musicians
Two local jazz musicians play a Louis Armstrong piece in Jackson Square.
Photo by Scott Thomas Anderson

The Crescent City nocturnal — horns crying under baroque handrails, statue shadows looming in the lamplight.

It’s not difficult to see why strangers are drawn to New Orleans: Every corner of the early Spanish-French port is baptized with a stunning Afro-immigrant mark of energy, the gritty, blasting trumpet sounds and the roiling trombone calls that echo from old doorways. Jazz is an art form stirred in America’s afterbirth — the first music that really screamed back at the world. The city still breathes that downtrodden majesty. At dawn you can walk along the Mississippi, watching an apricot blush in the sky throw long, flaming rails on its muddy glass before the riverbanks pass St. Peters Street, which turns for Congo Square, the place where it all started.

Sortir Royal
Horse-drawn carriage in the French Quarter
A horse-drawn carriage ambles across Royal Street in the French Quarter.
Photo by Scott Thomas Anderson

Bourbon Street may be the most famous avenue of the French Quarter but it’s hardly the most stylish. Today, Bourbon Street is a gaudy carnival of the grotesque — packed with cheap souvenir shops, not-so-gentlemanly gentlemen clubs, dime store daiquiri bars and loud, lumbering frat boys who vomit on every corner. A more genuine taste of the Vieux Carré is the spacious lane just east of it, Royal Street. Here the hurricane doors are painted bright and the chicory coffee is brewed strong. Lined with art galleries, dangling flowers and ornate, caged balconies, Royal Street feels like a timeless doorway back to the heights of Creole culture.

The Royal House Oyster Bar is a carefree stop on the upper avenue, a place to relax while eating jambalaya topped with blackened shrimp nearly purple in sandy layers of textured spices — that cutting Cajun touch that forks warm flavors through shellfish from the Gulf of Mexico. The novel “Dinner at Antoine’s” captured how alive the French Quarter was with culinary treasures in the 1940s; and this heritage still continues within the dim Victorian corners of The Bombay Club on St. Peters Street, where they offer seared steaks slathered in Maitre D’ butter and demi-glace, or with the sin-soft powdered beignets at Café Du Monde near the French Market.

For visitors, the true spell of Royal Street comes while walking at night, passing under angel busts hidden in ebony handrails and twisted specters of French refinement. The avenue’s most unusual vision waits in the back courtyard of the St. Louis Cathedral, where after sundown a lone floodlight aims directly at its statue of Jesus, casting the triumphant hail like a black, dripping candle up the cathedral’s contours from the 1800s.

A street performer strums a Bayou Folk tune on Frenchmen Street, near the best jazz clubs in New Orleans.
Photo by Scott Thomas Anderson

Walking Royal Street drums up an appetite for both food and atmosphere: Thankfully the clutter of antebellum elegance eventually leads to one of the city’s hidden garden patios. If you can find it, Café Amelie is known for its supple crab cakes in citrus drizzle, along with its crawfish pasta in spice-seasoned cream and Parmesan dust. The café’s dishes are surpassed only by its eerie evening ambiance. When night falls on the Mississippi, you can sit in the café watching fountains, palm trees, candles and torches pant against its colonial brickwork, seemingly alive with the quarter’s long Caribbean connection to Havana.  

Snug Harbor & Preservation Hall

New Orleans created America’s only original art form, and Preservation Hall is tribute to the rough rooms that spawned that legacy: It was in similar halls on nearby Rampart Street that Buddy Bolden and King Oliver cleared a way for the genius of Louis Armstrong, who emerged from “the back side of town” to change jazz with the manic revelations of self-expression that soared from his trumpet — a free force permeating songs like “Weather Bird” and “Mahogany Hall Stomp” with staccato blades of sound that reveal time-manipulation from the deepest emotional rhythms of the spirit.  

Preservation Hall looks much like the old venues did between 1900 and 1930, a threadbare room with cracked, pealed walls and two yellow lamps that hang like cat eyes from ceilings fans. Today, patrons who visit can see trumpeters such as Wendell Brunious, whose crisp, clarion command, agile accents and swelling sign-offs are the essence of the early tradition. Another musician often at the hall is Freddie Lanzo, widely considered among the Big Easy’s greatest tailgate trombonists. Tailgate “bones” merge the soulful essence of Delta Blues with the elephant attacks of turn-of-the-century parade bands. Lanzo lends a grinding grace to this trombone style, blowing with both salt and silk in his low-throated slides.

A view of Saint Peter Street near the Bombay Club in the French Quarter.
Photo by Scott Thomas Anderson 

New Orleans jazz continues to evolve down the way on Frenchmen Street. Clubs from the Blue Nile to the Spotted Cat host dynamic musicians, including Kermit Ruffins, clad in his fedora, holding his silver trumpet, blasting the stage open with the irreverent poetics of his ever-higher notes. These clubs are also haunted by the snake-charming fountain of Dr. Michael White’s clarinet, its exotic hum sharp, smooth and free, often pouring like nectar over the gritty mute-stops of trumpeter Nicholas Payton. The piano master Henry Butler plays on Frenchmen Street, still showing how to bring grace to hard-rolling and hammering on ivory, bouncing with a crystalline percussion to his solos and a near mysticism to how he drives notes into his band’s bass punches and kick-strikes. 

Of all the jazz stops on Frenchmen Street, Snug Harbor is an institution. On Thursday evenings you can usually catch Ellis Marsalis there, the elegant patriarch hunched over his piano, wearing a Ferrari-red vest and Mardi Gras tie that speak to his hometown roots. The Ellis Marsalis Quartet is a throbbing jazz prayer. During a performance, the group follows the elder statesman’s rippling flurries on the piano. They react to his bright chords. They accelerate on his fluid runs. They improvise with the sound of his mood. For fans new to the art, it’s a virtual clinic on how a pianist’s technique can spark the full-throttle contemplation of a band.

Braving Bourbon

The most famous street in New Orleans is named after the French aristocrat, Philippe Duc d’Orleans of the House of Bourbons. Philippe was a man of excess and debonair fop of debauchery, and in some ways his spirit still surges up the avenue that marks his memory, somewhere amidst the spilling drinks, lifting shirts and hurled, airborne beads.

Yet there is more to Bourbon Street than just delirious disintegration: It’s an avenue for boogying to Second Line Parades as well as a historic gateway to voodoo. It’s also home to restaurants like The Red Fish Grill, a collision of flare and casual refinement situated near the business district. Top choices at The Red Fish include the barbecued blue crab claws, smothered in smoky butter-gravy and highlighted with chive on succulent white meat. Chances are if you’ve heard of The Red Fish Grill you’ve heard of its smoldering bread pudding, which is nearly translucent under an oven-crisp top, white chocolate ganache and dark chocolate almond bark.

Kermit Ruffins and His Barbecue Swingers at Little Gem Saloon, New Orleans
Kermit Ruffins and his Barbecue Swingers perform at the Little Gem Saloon on Rampart Street, in the neighborhood that once held Storyville.
Photo by Scott Thomas Anderson 

Eating in New Orleans is dangerous if not accompanied by a lot of walking. A southbound detour from the 100 block of Bourbon Street onto Royal Street can skip you around the worst of the famous corridor’s slum-loving. If you return to Bourbon at the corner of Toulouse Street you’ll encounter a tantalizing dining hub called Saints and Sinners. A cave of red leather walls, ruby-devil curtains and dingy, gold rails, this flashback to the days of Storyville is all crimson and copper curiosity. And its menu has a secret Cajun weapon in the form of Chef William Aguilar’s crawfish pie. The dish hits with cutting cyan gradations soothed by oozing, oily pepper juices: It’s a recipe subtly spicier than the vintage photos of the turn-of-the-century “restricted district” to which Saints and Sinners pays homage. 

Waiting down the way is Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop, a sunken shape from 1760, which glows at night in the swampy Neptune neon of Bourbon Street. The bar is associated with Jean Lafitte, a pirate who once navigated in the Caribbean waves and Louisiana bayous. These days you can enter Lafitte’s tavern through its street-side hurricane doors, grabbing a table to survey the faces along its calico rock walls dimly lit by antique lamps and the hearth’s firelight.

From Streetcars To Garden Graves

In New Orleans, the full Tennessee-Williams effect is felt on Saint Charles Avenue, a stretch of stone, leaf-littered walkways and Mardi Gras beads that glint from oak branches as streetcars pass by. This section of the city was born when American southerners arrived after 1804; but the French still have their mark here by virtue of the Lafayette Cemetery, one of the nation’s most hypnotizing works of funerary art: The Lafayette is a walled city of moss-smeared stone — a cramped quarter of tiny Gothic shelters of the forgotten. The crypts stand in crowded rows, slightly tipping on the grass over swamp and under the passing storm breezes.

A view of the Saint Louis Cathedral from the banks of the Mississippi River.
Photo by Scott Thomas Anderson 

Visitors will notice pillared, double-gallery mansions of the Garden District surround the cemetery. It’s said that here, on Prytania Street, F. Scott Fitzgerald penned his first novel while staying in a room that overlooked the old graveyard. One of New Orleans’ current writers, Andrei Codrescu, has mused about Fitzgerald “wincing from last night’s gin, looking down on the little houses of the dead.”

The Irish House on St. Charles Avenue proudly serves a drink called The Fitzgerald. When the Spanish officially took over New Orleans from the French in 1763, they sent a tough Irish commander to beat the rowdy Creoles into submission: Establishments like The Irish House are reminders the Crescent City has always had a little influence from “the land of Blood and Horses.” The pub has a classic style, with earthen-tan walls and red, faded bricks. A clock set to Dublin time ticks near its classic Celtic fireplace. The Irish House is known for its duck sausage and Muggivan, a burger piled with cheddar, bacon, coleslaw and topped with a fried egg — offering a runny, buttery flow that savors coolly in charbroiled juices. Wandering up to the bar, you can order The Fitzgerald and feel its liquid bomb of Gin, lemon juice, simple syrup and Angostura bitters.

From the Irish House it’s back onto the St. Charles streetcar, heading north again to the French Quarter. The streetcar windows pass as many pieces of invisible history as visible ones: The bawdy bordellos of Storyville were demolished in the 1930s; the ramshackle wood house Louis Armstrong grew up in has long been plowed away; the recording studio that produced America’s first rock and roll album in 1949 is now a laundry mat; the buildings that inspired Tennessee Williams along Elysian Fields continue to be torn down. But despite these mistakes — and the disaster of Hurricane Katrina — most of the markers for New Orleans’s roaring, rebellious ride through the American experience are still standing, tributes to a constantly re-emerging cultural renaissance that fuels the imagination with the possibilities of things to come.

The New Orleans French Quarter is an amalgam of French, Spanish, African and Cuban influences, unmatched and unequaled anywhere in the United States. Photo by Scott Thomas Anderson