New Orleans a jazzy feast of sights and sounds
New Orleans a jazzy feast of sights and sounds
May 21, 2010
Gloria Cole Sugarman
New Orleans, that beloved, beleaguered city that hugs the muddy Mississippi River never seems to get a break, unless it's when the musicians take a time out between sets. Battered by Hurricane Katrina five years ago and still barely recovering, residents are now facing the horrendous aftermath of the gigantic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Although they have every reason to sing the blues, they seem to always come back to an upbeat tune.
From a lone sax on a French Quarter street corner to the competing sounds of 4,000 musicians playing over the two-week long Jazz and Heritage Festival (Jazz Fest), the city, as it is portrayed in the new hit HBO series, "Treme," has an indefatigable spirit amplified by its music. From jazz to blues to gospel to rock, it's all there for the listening, the foot tapping and the dancing; a heavenly constellation of sounds to the incessant rhythms of a beat.
For us -- myself and my three grown children, Loren, Michael and Suzanne -- it was the perfect choice of time and place to celebrate Mike's 50th birthday, which happily coincided with Jazz Fest.
Jazz lover that he is, it fed that appetite as well as his other for wonderful food exemplified by its spicy delicious Cajun and Creole cuisines, succulent crawfish and shrimp every way it can be served. Coming from Vermont, Alaska, California and Connecticut, we converged in New Orleans to celebrate each other and that vibrant city, which even catastrophe never seems to dampen.
After spending one night at the luxurious Loew's New Orleans hotel, just off the French Quarter with its spacious rooms and handsome Adelaide's restaurant, we moved into our rented duplex in a lovely old Victorian house in the Garden District; better for those of us who like to do our own cooking, want more space than a hotel room provides and relish the feeling of actually living in a place as opposed to being tourists, even though we are.
From there we could easily take the trolley to the Sheraton Hotel where we could buy our tickets for the shuttle bus to the 27-acre fair grounds where the Jazz Fest took place.
Mingling with some 375,000 jazz lovers of all shapes, sizes, ages, and dress codes (hats, for instance, ranging from cowboy to straw boaters to sun visors) and physical conditions (wheelchairs, canes and walkers, gamely included), we strolled from tent to tent picking up strains of jazz and all of its derivatives: Dixieland, soul, rhythm and blues, bebop, hip-hop, punk, funk, rock, rap, country and zydeco, among every other genre there is.
The headliners for this stellar annual event. now in its 37th year, included Aretha Franklin, Elvis Costello, Lionel Richie, B.B. King , Simon & Garfunkel, Keely Smith, Allman Brothers, Anita Baker, Pearl Jam, Neville Brothers, Van Morrison, Ellis Marsalis and of course, the iconic Preservation Hall.
As my younger generation wandered from one venue to the next, sampling and stopping wherever the music struck their own personal chords, I chose The Blues Tent where the mellow strains of "Down by the River Side" drew me in and the sight of women audience members with twirling parasols high-stepping through the aisles to "The Darktown StrutterÂ¹s Ball," made me stay.
And since music lovers need to eat to keep their toes tapping, there were endless food stalls offering such New Orleans classics as muffulettas. (like a hero sandwich on crusty Italian bread with a rich olive spread covering the meats and cheeses) and po boys (another crusty bread combo filled with crawfish, shrimp, oysters or catfish mixed with lettuce tomato and mayo) as well as all kinds of crafts tents offering everything from souvenirs to expensive African carvings.
Between the hundreds of Jazz Fest events, which were daily from noon to 7 p.m., we wandered the Garden District with its classic white pillared entrances, lacy wrought iron gates and lovingly tended gardens and the bustling French Quarter, with its tiny shops and restaurants, its aromas of fresh baked beignets and the sights and sounds of street performers and lone musicians playing on every corner.
One evening there we went to K-Paul's Louisiana Kitchen, the restaurant created by the legendary chef Paul Prudhomme.
Advised in advance by his sisters that it was Michael's birthday, our white tablecloth was studded with sequins which sparkled in the candlelight and our dinner choices included Prudhomme's Crabmeat Jambalaya with a spicy piquant sauce, the tastiest Soft-shell crab with his famous Remoulade and Shrimp and Andouille Creole Rice.
For desserts there was Sweet Potato Pecan Pie with Chantilly Cream and a luscious Bread Pudding with lemon sauce.
As we toasted Michael on this major event, a waiter with a trained operatic voice sang "Happy Birthday to You" in the richest baritone that tired old turkey has ever been performed; another major musical event in the city of musical events.
To leaven all this giddy celebration and to remind ourselves of what else New Orleans stands for, we drove around the lower Ninth Ward, which took the biggest hit of Hurricane Katrina, where homes were washed away, where people stood on their rooftops begging to be rescued and where almost 2,000 died in that tragic effort.
Although there is some new construction going on, the evidence of that battering five years ago is still apparent in its dilapidated, boarded up houses sagging on their flimsy foundations and the emptiness of its sad little streets.
Now with the oil spill in the Gulf forecasting more heartache for this heartbreaking place, one can't help but think of the old Harold Arlen song:
"Got a right to sing the blues
Got a right to feel low down
Got a right to hang around
Down around the river."
On the other hand -- and in the Crescent City there is always another hand -- there is Louis Armstrong, for whom their airport is named, singing:
"Way down yonder in New Orleans
In the land of the dreamy scenes
There's a Garden of Eden
You know what I mean?"
We do and we know that the Big Easy is not always easy, but it's unique, complex and fascinating. And always worth a visit.