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Feeling the Music of New Orleans

Published 09 June 2017

Alexandra Gregg

Even when it’s not Mardi Gras, you can still feel its rhythm beating through the streets of New Orleans. It was May – three months after the iconic festival that rocks this oceanfront city every year – and yet technicolour beads were still hanging from the traffic lights, street signs and trees, becoming one with vast wisps of Spanish moss. As we were driven back through the residential areas – learning all about shotgun houses, Creole architecture and above-ground tombs on a Gray Line bus tour of NOLA – I began to hear it: the faint sound of music, being carried on the wind from Jackson Square…

New Orleans, USA

Image: Alexandra Gregg

And that’s pretty much what it was like the whole time I was in The Big Easy. Someone, somewhere, constantly, was playing live jazz for all to hear. You can see why Mardi Gras (despite originating in Mobile, Alabama) has made its home here, and why it’s easy to get festival fever, no matter when you visit. This city is simply alive with Mardi Gras, and music is its lifeblood.

Violinists in Jackson Square, New Orleans

Image: Alexandra Gregg

On the streets

The first taste I got of New Orleans’ musical heart was in Bourbon Street. The street itself was unmissable – even when wandering the French Quarter aimlessly it’s impossible to avoid; the thronging crowds, the unmistakable smell of alcohol and cigarettes, and, of course, the music. And although the sights and smells didn’t necessarily appeal, the sound more than made up for it. It made me linger a little longer here than I normally would in such a bustling place, listening to brass instruments being tunefully trumpeted on the street corner. We heard similar melodies in Jackson Square – where I located the source of the indistinct music I’d heard earlier that day. This time though, it was relaxing violin phrases that filled the air, rather than a big orchestral blast. What a contrast.

New Orleans

Image: Alexandra Gregg

Under the beating sun, accompanied by a gentle afternoon breeze, we sat for what felt like an hour (but couldn’t have been more than 10 minutes), just listening to the soothing sounds emitting from the strings.

Bourbon Street, New Orleans

Image: Alexandra Gregg

In the jazz clubs

The music scene here extends well into the evenings of course, with jazz clubs and bars aplenty peppered across town, coming to life around 7 or 8pm. We sat down for a Hurricane cocktail (or three) at The Jazz Playhouse, a classy, time-warp lounge located inside the Royal Sonesta Hotel. Here, a live band regaled us with a toe-tapping, head-swaying collection of jazz and blues classics, like the soulful Blue Monday by Fats Domino. It’s an almost romantic setting, so much so that it’s easy to forget you’re still in Bourbon Street. Until you step back outside, that is…

Jazz musicians in New Orleans' French Quarter

Image: Alexandra Gregg

While eating (or drinking)

And when you’re not strolling the French Quarter or soaking up the jazz club atmosphere, you’ll need to stop for a bit of sustenance too. We sampled baked Gulf oysters, shrimp-packed po’ boys, and fried green tomatoes (just like in the movie) in the Desire Oyster Bar. And despite being distracted by a delicious offering of deep-fried food, I still heard the rumble of live music outside, mixed in with the upbeat music that the restaurant was playing.

Spotted Cat, Frenchmen St, New Orleans

Image: Sarah Barnett

Stomach sufficiently filled, we made a beeline for Frenchmen Street for our final dose of the New Orleans rhythm. This is where you’ll find the real nightlife, and the real music, away from the chaos of Bourbon Street. Expect some of the best live sets in NOLA in the Spotted Cat Music Club, in Faubourg Marigny, where we stayed until the early hours. It was intimate but lively, serving up a great ambience and delicious, reasonably priced drinks, accompanied by fun and friendly staff and, you guessed it, a fantastic band. What’s more, it’s located right next to the fairylit Frenchmen Street Night Market too, so you can shop for hand-made souvenirs while still being able to hear whatever sounds are coming from within the club. Traditional and modern jazz, blues, soul and funk – you name it, Frenchmen, and NOLA, has got it.

New Orleans Street

Image: Alexandra Gregg


Travel to New Orleans with one of Round the World Experts' Deep South Holidays.


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