When I lived in Chicago, one of my friend’s father worked as a bartender at Mr. Kelly’s, the famous Rush Street nightclub known for headlining the big name jazz groups. My friend would occasionally arrange for us to be snuck in the back of the club, allowing me to develop my first appreciation for this genre of music. Following my move to New Orleans for medical school, I found myself in jazz heaven.
Jazz music was originally dance music. It wasn’t until recent years that jazz became more a passive, listening experience. There are a number of different styles of jazz characteristic of New Orleans, of which Dixieland is but one variety. Each parish (district) had some individual outstanding musicians who developed a signature sound, later copied elsewhere by others. From Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton to Pete Fountain and Al Hirt, New Orleans sent its musical missionaries around the world. Still hosting the annual Jazz Festival, the city retains much of its long jazz heritage. (I met Woody Allen in town for the Festival, as he was sitting on a bench with his clarinet in front of St. Louis Cathedral, talking with my roommate at the time, who was also a clarinet player.)
By the time I moved there, the iconic Basin Street clubs had closed, but Bourbon Street in the French Quarter offered numerous jazz venues supported by both tourists and locals. Preservation Hall, founded in 1961, provided a place for old jazz artists to work, as well as conserve several classic musical traditions. No more than an old storefront just off Bourbon Street with open windows and a small stage, visitors could stand outside or come in, sit on wooden benches, and listen to leather skinned African-American musicians with mostly white hair play a style of jazz that harkened back to the beginning of the century. During my time, there was no admission, though visitors were encouraged to place some money into the open music cases on stage. Next door, Pat O’Brien’s Pub, home of the famous Hurricane (a rum based concoction in a tall souvenir glass) offered two well-seasoned ladies sitting at twin pianos playing popular sing along music for tourists. The city allowed the consumption of alcohol in open containers all throughout the Quarter, guaranteeing a rowdy scene for visitors.
Most establishments kept wide open windows, hoping to entice passersby to come in for some cool watered down drinks and hot music. If you were a poor student, you could still stand on the sidewalk and enjoy the performance of talented musicians. The hotels offered balconies from which guests could partake of the non-stop revelries on the street below, or invite someone up to join their own party. For those who needed to study, Bourbon Street provided both a temptation as well as a source of much needed relief from the pressures of school.
Jazz music was, and is, the rhythm of the Crescent City, whether it be the marching bands during Mardi Gras parades, the music of parties in City Park, or the sounds of the traditional African-American funeral parade, with family, neighbors and friends dancing and twirling umbrellas behind the hearse on their way to the cemetery. Wherever you go in the City That Care Forgot, the Saints Are Marching In!