Frenchmen Street and a few adjacent streets in New Orleans are lined with bars, restaurants and clubs. Almost all have live music and you can walk from one to another, space permitting, at your own speed. To facilitate this constant movement, most drinks are served in plastic beakers so that you don’t have to finish your drink in one place before moving on. Some places make it a rule that you have to buy a drink in lieu of an entrance ticket, but the laid back atmosphere means that the rules are seldom enforced. Over our three nights in the city we were probably in about ten different places each playing different varieties of jazz. What a treat.
Eating is another great experience. On the first night the front desk recommended Coops Place, a bar only two blocks away that serves southern food. We gave it a go and were not disappointed. It was busy and all the tables were full but we were offered stools at the bar and what a success that was. Not only did we get good service but the barman was a pleasure to watch as he took multiple orders at a time and everyone got what they had ordered.
Whilst serving he was also watching the National (Ice) Hockey League Finals (The Stanley Cup) on a large screen across the bar. This year the final is between the Chicago Blackhawks and the Boston Bruins. We, and the barman, were rooting for the Blackhawks a team which we had watched winning the cup in 2009 in their home city of Chicago. When the final whistle blew that year the whole city erupted. We were at the top of the Hancock Tower and saw firework after firework soaring into the sky all across the city. A short while later a cavalcade of maybe 100 cars formed in Michigan Avenue, the central shopping street. They drove back and forwards from end to end for what seemed like hours. This is a best-of-seven-games final and tonight’s was only game four so we’ll have to wait a few days to see if the Blackhawks can be the champions again. (As I write they are leading three games to two.)
Back to the food which was delicious. We shared a starter of Crabmeat Stuffed Jalapeno Peppers with a Horseradish dipping sauce. Scrumptious. For main dishes, Margaret had Red Beans & Rice with Fried Chicken whilst I had Shrimp Creole. Both were very tasty and a fitting introduction to southern food.
Our first full day was marred by heavy rain in the morning, a regular local phenomenon we were told. By lunchtime it was blazing hot again. The City Tourist Office was manned by a friendly and informative man of about our own age. [It is almost invariably the case that such places, and also government agency guides at State Parks etc, are people who we would consider to be well past retirement age.] He gave us what turned out to be good information about places to eat – and why they were the best. He also told us what to avoid, including Bourbon Street, and instead to go to the Frenchmen Street area. On his recommendation, that afternoon in continuing blazing sunshine we caught a Streetcar – tramcar – to the Garden District. Our senior citizen tickets cost the princely sum of 40 cents each per journey. For our younger brethren the fare is $1.25, quite a saving for us.
The Garden District was developed during the C19th as a suburb of fine mansions with individual gardens. It is considered to be one of the finest collections of Southern mansions in the US. In the days when they were being built, it was the thing to be your own architect. Amazingly this has led to a fairly consistent style across the whole neighbourhood. Unfortunately, you can’t go into the houses to see the opulence but a self-guided tour explained about the interiors of each house as we looked at the outside. A common external feature is the extensive use of decorative metalwork on the many verandas of each mansion.
On returning to the French Quarter, the Streetcar only took as far as the western edge and our hotel was on the eastern edge. We started out along the nearest cross street which was very uninteresting, so then moved one street over to the notorious Bourbon Street. What a dump, very seedy and lots of signs that it was a place for getting drunk rather than for listening to good music. But it was time for a drink, so we chose the most civilised looking place – i.e. a place that looked like a normal bar and not a cocktail joint. It was only after getting a seat at the bar and ordering a couple of drinks that we realised we were in a gay bar. There were six or so all male couples and quite a lot of groping going on. No one was in the least bit interested in us, so we settled down and enjoyed our drinks.
For dinner on the second night we went to Muriel’s, a restaurant just a few blocks along the road from the hotel, and had gumbo followed by a few other Cajun delights. Then it was time to head back to Frenchmen Street and sample the bars and the music.
Being the cheapskates that we are, for a river experience we didn’t choose one of the big paddle steamers that seemed to be full of organised groups and were rather expensive, but instead chose the Algiers Point Ferry. This is primarily for the use of people who live on the other side of the river and is free. It’s a big enough boat to take about 20 cars and the main passenger cabin is air-conditioned. Algiers Point is a residential suburb of brightly coloured, individual wooden and brick houses built maybe 100 years ago. It is on the inside of a big bend in the Mississippi as it flows through central New Orleans. We had a walk round a few streets then adjourned to a café/bar. From the ferry terminal looking back across the river there was a fine panorama of the whole of the city. As we watched a freight train was passing along the far river front. It had the locomotive on the extreme left of the vista and the last truck at the extreme right. Some train!! On the way back we had a good view of the high level road bridges and saw a massive container ship heading upstream and clearing the road decks by a fairly narrow margin.
We wanted to see some art and saw that the New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA) in City Park could be reached by the Canal Streetcar. That sounded ideal. We soon found the down sides of this “convenience”. At the beginning and end of the day the Streetcars are used by the locals to get to and from work. During the rest of the day they are largely the preserve of the tourists and the timetable seems to go out the window once people are at their work. After a very long wait we did catch one and the journey started up the wide avenue of Canal Street. Suddenly the car came to a halt, the driver got out and re-arranged the pantographs (the overhead electricity conductors) and the car was heading back down Canal Street. The driver then told us that there had been an accident ahead and he was making space for other Streetcars to get back to the city. Once a few Streetcars had passed the pantographs were re-arranged again and we proceeded on our journey. Very soon we saw the mangled wreckage of an SUV (4-wheel drive vehicle) that had dared to tangle with a Streetcar. The latter looked barely scratched.
So an hour and a half later the Streetcar pulled up at the terminus. The NOMA was an obvious building up a long drive through the City Park. There turned out to be an entry charge but it was fairly modest.
The museum was divided into a number of themed sections. The first part we focused on was a special exhibition of Decorative Art with special reference to works produced by a number of countries for the World’s Fairs that were popular in the second half of the C19th and the very early C20th. We were greatly impressed.
Then we went round the rooms of modern paintings including the impressionists and a few more recent works by American artists. Also in this section were four rooms of black and white photos under the collected title “The Story in Pictures”. They were a real social history illustrated by the works of the renowned photographers Milton Rogovin, Leon Levinstein, Frank Paulin, and Debbie Fleming Caffery. It was all very moving.
Finally, there was a gallery devoted to recent works by Louisiana artists or works with a Louisiana theme. One massive work took as it theme the introduction, due to man’s activities, of non-indigenous animals into the bayous. It was revealing to learn that even the introduction of domestic cats has caused changes in the biological balance.
It being New Orleans and a very Catholic area of the country, we were not entirely surprised to find another few rooms devoted to an exhibition “A Portrait of Faith : Pope John Paul II’s in Life and Art”. There wasn’t time left to visit.
Taken as a whole this was a fine Art Museum with lots of variety and well curated. On the negative side, this must be noisiest gallery we have ever visited. It wasn’t because of crowds of people – the place was relatively deserted – most of the noise was made by the museum staff. A black mark for that.
For our last night in The Big Easy, we decided to go to a club where we could get dinner and listen to a properly staged event rather than the freestyle of the bars. Two places looked promising, Palm Court Jazz Cafe and Snug Harbor. Both were very close to our hotel. As it turned out the Jazz Café was closed for refurbishment so it had to be the Snug Harbour directly opposite the Spotted Cat where we had started our New Orleans musical adventure.
The band playing that night was Wess “Warm Daddy” Anderson and his Quintet. Wess is a regular at the club but this was his first night back since he suffered a stroke at the end of last year. He had been paralysed down the right side, the same as I had been 10 years ago, so I could fully empathise with what he had had to go through in the past months. His instrument, the alto saxophone, needs a lot of manual dexterity but he quickly showed that the effects of the stroke were not going to affect his playing ability. He came onto the stage of the intimate theatre a larger than life character dressed in a dazzling white pin-striped suit. They kicked off with “Caravan” a number made popular by Duke Ellington and we got a feel of how good a band we were listening to.
The quintet members were all clearly masters in their own rights with impressive biographies. The pianist Victor Atkins, Professor of Jazz Studies at the University of New Orleans and a tall gangling man with long fingers, had a playing style which involved getting closer and closer to the keyboard as each piece progressed. The rhythm guitarist Detroit Brooks, famous on the New Orleans jazz scene, was dressed in a dark grey suit and almost stood to attention when playing. During the course of the evening he did some vocal pieces and was an impressive jazz singer. The bassist Harry Anderson, Southern University Director of Jazz Studies, kept the rhythm going and performed some impressive solo pieces. Finally, the drummer Geoff Clapp, was so energetic that he must lose pounds every time he plays. He was to one side of the stage and there was a large cast-iron central heating pipe just beside him. This was added to his range of percussion instruments to great effect.
Towards the end of the evening Wess called a young man in the audience onto the stage. It turned out that Wess spends a lot of his time teaching jazz at the Southern University in Baton Rouge, a university that specialises in helping black students of limited means to get a full college education. This young man was a trumpet player being coached by Wess. He joined the band for the last two numbers and was clearly ready for a career in the world of jazz. There was also a very young teenager in the audience who Wess explained was a pupil at the summer camp he was currently running. He was in the audience tonight, with his parents, to understand the club atmosphere in which he might be playing in the future. Wess is one of those people who makes it his job to encourage budding musicians. It was a great way to end a superb night of jazz.
The next morning was time to pack and leave the Richelieu and continue on our travels. But before saying farewell we had to return for a second breakfast at Stanley’s on Jackson Square in the heart of the French Quarter. Although they serve food all day, breakfast dishes are their speciality. It has a great buzz and on our second visit we had to wait outside in the square until a table was free. The place was smartly decorated in black and white and the staff were friendly and efficient. On the first visit I chose the signature dish Eggs Stanley (Cornmeal-Crusted Oysters, Poached Eggs, Canadian Bacon and Creole Hollandaise on a Toasted English Muffin). It was absolutely delicious. On our second visit it may come as no surprise that I just had to have Eggs Stanley again. Margaret was more adventurous and had Breaux Bridge Benedict (Charlie T’s Boudin, Smoked Ham, American Cheese, Poached Eggs, and Creole Hollandaise) on our first visit and Bananas Foster French Toast (Battered French Bread, Sliced Bananas, Tahitian Vanilla Bean Ice Cream, and Toasted Walnuts with Foster Sauce) on the second. Washed down with as much good coffee as you could consume and a glass of iced water, the bill each day came to less than $30 including tip – a bargain for such excellent food. Another good reason, along with the jazz, for going back to New Orleans in the future.
And so it was back into the car, which was by now looking decidedly grubby both inside and out, and onto the interstate westwards. We were bound for Dallas, a city probably best known for the assassination of President Kennedy and J R Ewing. We’d have to find out if there is anything else.