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in The Big Easy
The piercingly sweet trumpet is soloing on Oh Didn’t he Ramble and I’m ‘second lining’* up North Rampart Street in New Orleans on a Sunday afternoon behind the best jazz bands in town. Crowds pour out of Armstrong Park where they’ve been waiting in the sweltering heat since early morning for the parade to begin, and I’m lifted bodily off the ground as we move off.
“Hey babe, you ain’t got no beads” and a big Mama drapes a dozen strings of green, gold and purple necklaces around me. I am underdressed. Electric blue suits, scarlet jackets, and leopard skin hats mark the sharpest dressers in the parade. That’s just the men. The women, in skin-tight pants and spangly tops of eye-watering colours wear acrylic wigs in a surreal clash of shocking-pink, green and silver. Mardi Gras may be over, but in New Orleans the spirit lives on. Someone throws me a scarlet feather boa and a floppy black hat: now I blend in.
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This dizzying jumble of European and Caribbean cultures is a 24-hour party city where music is on tap night and day, indoors and out. Queue for coffee and beignets (doughnuts to die for, smothered in icing sugar) at the famous Café du Monde on Decatur Street and there’s a saxophonist in a too small trilby playing soft, seductive blues. Get off the streetcar at the French Market and there’s a lone trumpeter belting out Georgia on My Mind. Take a trip down the muddy Mississippi on a paddle boat and the Dixie Kings will set your feet tapping.
Musicians are busking in the squares and on street corners as I peel off from the parade to explore the Magnolia hung narrow streets of the French Quarter, heart of the city for 300 years. History is embedded in the peeling, pastel-coloured houses, overhung with filigreed balconies lush with greenery and fragrant jasmine; in the voodoo houses selling charms and potions; and in the cemeteries full of crumbling, marble tombs, where the dead once floated back up out of the swamp and ghosts are said to walk at night.
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The green oasis of Jackson Square bustles with jugglers, dancers, tarot card readers, voodoo priests, and hawkers of hats, feather boas and beads. My Guide Book lists the important Museums, monuments and churches I should visit but I decide to put them on hold for now: the Big Easy has that effect on people.
I wander off to find the oldest building in the city, a blacksmith’s forge once operated by the pirate brothers Lafitte, now a bar. ‘Come in and y’all be my guest,’ the barman says when I ask if I can look around.
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The food looked good there, but then New Orleans is gastronomic heaven whether you chose the world’s most famous Cajun restaurant, K-Paul’s at 416 Chartres Street, the budget La Madeleine on the corner of Jackson Square, or any of the hundreds of eateries in the city. Gumbo is the best Creole dish to start with, a superb soupy concoction made with local Gulf shrimps, crabs and crawfish, served with rice on the side. And a po’boy sandwich will set you up for the day - crusty French bread filled with fried oysters, shrimp and soft shell crabs, or any combination of your choice. (We’re talking BIG sandwiches here. N’awlins don’t do small.)
There’s drama as well as music as the Stella Yelling contest gets under way outside Le Petit Theatre and wannabe Marlon Brandos sink to their knees and yell ‘Stellllaaaaa’ as Brando did in A Streetcar Named Desire, the play by the city’s favourite son, Tennessee Williams.
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And when the nightbeat of Bourbon Street starts up music blasts from dark bars, tap-dancers work the queue outside Preservation Hall where the legends of jazz play nightly and the House of Voodoo does brisk business in sales to the 15% of the population that practice the dark art.
For authentic jazz, the fans make tracks for Vaughan’s on Dauphine Street, Funky Butts or Donna’s on North Rampart Street, or the House of Blues on Decatur Street. There’s Cajun music too - washboards, fiddles, corrugated tin and accordians - and its faster variant, zydeco, at Mulate’s on Julia Street.
To listen to Cajun on its homeground I take a trip on the bayous. Wild irises nestle on the banks, and turtles, herons and white egrets share what I hope are floating logs in the waters (these swampy waters with their spanish moss hung cypress trees are full of alligators as well as catfish and crabs). On the land, bobcats, racoons, snakes and nutria - a sort of giant water-rat on steroids - keep the hunters busy and make sure that few households keep small pets.
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Both Cajuns and Creoles are descended from the French but while the Cajuns were rustic, self-sufficient country folk who lived among the bayous for two centuries, the Creoles were strictly cosmopolitan city dwellers who built the great mansions in the Garden district of New Orleans and the plantation houses, straight out of Gone With the Wind, that line the River Road along the Mississippi.
The New Orleans motto is “Laissez les bon temps rouler” - Let the Good Times Roll - and back in Jackson Square there’s a clarinettist soloing on Down by the Riverside. Some Cajun musicians are tuning up just round the corner and in the distance I can hear what sounds like more than one jazz band. I really should check out those museums and monuments but ...
I pat my beads, tuck the feather boa around my neck, straighten the hat and head off to find the music. After all, this is The Big Easy and the saints are marchin’ in. Good times are a-rollin’. May they never stop.
*Second-lining is following the bands in a parade, i.e. forming the ‘second line’.
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