Bourbon Street, circa today.

The setting is New Orleans, circa 1880. A lone trumpet player blows his horn on the side of a dirt road. But soon a fuller melody overtakes his and as it gets louder, a brass band appears around the corner, playing a funeral march as it trails behind a wooden casket. He falls in step with the procession, its line consisting of four other men, and he plays along.

And as it skirts its way through the city, the band picks up more members: Here a cornet, there a pair of cymbals, a few more trumpets, a trombone. Soon the women join in and with them the vocals swell, the bluesy chants from the fields forming an uneasy blend with the 4/4 rhythm of the march. The melody syncopates ahead, always a few seconds off the beat.

And with the music the crowd swells, then the music again, its tempo picking up pace and with it the key shifting. From minor to major. Sad to festive. And by the time the band enters the French Quarter and explodes onto Bourbon Street, several Creole musicians have joined in, carrying the ragtime piano melodies they left behind with their own voices.

And just like that, jazz is born.

First Impressions • Bourbon Street

More than a century later, I find myself on that same street. It’s indeed New Orleans, and the sign definitely reads “Bourbon Street.” I search of the jazz, but it’s nowhere to be found.

Bourbon Street is in the heart of the French Quarter.

Sure it plays in hotel lobbies, from speakers at crossroads, and at upscale restaurants. The word itself is all over fliers in the parks, on the placards of one-man street performers doing card tricks instead (they draw bigger crowds), in souvenir shops, on tourist pamphlets, even on plaques adorning bronze and copper busts of such legends as Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bichet. But jazz, the music, the state of mind, the improvisation, the dirt, the grime, the trumpet line or piano trill that makes my heart sink in melancholy and jump for joy at almost the same time — that’s nowhere.

The French Quarter, New Orleans, Louisiana, USA.

Jazz is the pride of New Orleans musical heritage.

Not jazz, but folk street artists are common.

Jazz diva Ella Fitzgerald at a local restaurant.

Woof.

'Nuff said.

Balcony onlookers are a staple of Bourbon Street.

24 hour strip joints along Bourbon Street.

Jazz is everywhere and nowhere.

Instead, what is there is the beautifully pristine architecture of the French Quarter during the daytime, the endless line of divy bars in the evening, and the hordes of piss-faced tourists on second-floor balconies yelling at the girls below to flash their boobs for a string of beads at night. All of that has its charms (I mean it’s pretty silly and kooky, really), but that’s not why I’ve dreamed of visiting New Orleans since jazz found its way into my life twenty years ago.

Yet little do I realize that first, second, and third impressions can be very different (and if you don’t believe me, compare the three different doggy-woofs in each).

Second Impressions • Esplanade Avenue

Two days have gone by and I’m already Bourboned out and ready to leave tomorrow, so I decide to venture off the beaten path. My companions are scheduled to leave ahead of me anyway, and as soon as I bid them farewell, I check out of my hotel on Bourbon Street and move to a guesthouse.

Melrose Mansion is a restored Victorian house, over a hundred years old, outside the French Quarter, away from the tourists. Phew. That proves to be a good start, and I already find myself feeling like Tennessee Williams as I make my way up the stairs.

This is just off Bourbon Street, but feels like another world.

Woof.

Melrose Mansion on Esplanade Ave.

Meedo Tennessee Williams is a true Southern Gentleman.

The guesthouse is a very welcome change from blah hotels.

The statue behind the staircase startles me every time.

Third Impressions • Frenchmen Street

After a quick nap on my canopied bed, I’m all set for my last night out so I do some enquiring around decide to spend my last night on Frenchmen Street. First stop is a seafood gumbo dinner at the Praline Connection, the legendary Cajun-Creole restaurant. Then it’s time to lose myself in the artsy underbelly of New Orleans.

Home of the best gumbo ever.

But then almost by accident, I hear it… Jazz spills out from bar after bar. It seeps out of the windows, the cracks in the walls, the manholes in the street. Heck it is the street. Swing, Bebop, Ragtime, Electric, Fusion, Dixie, all of it. It’s everywhere. A hundered and fifty years of music plays simultaneously. In an instant I’m there. Live. Alive. Thumping, swinging, trumpeting, forwards, backwards and in every conceivable direction. Layers upon layers of sound. But instead of forming a cacophony, somehow it makes sense. It all falls into place as only jazz can.

Swing, the earliest form of popular jazz, is alive and well.

Even Dixie jazz, now considered almost farcical, brings down the house.

Woof.

And as I wander up and down Frenchmen Street, I catch sight of that procession from that long-gone New Orleans. It marches right past me, from another time and place. But no, it is the present. A very different present. One I know always existed. First in my mind and now right here. Now. Not a funeral this time, but a celebration.

And as it marches by, I take a shot of the lone trumpet player as he trails behind it.

The lone trumpet player (click to enlarge).

Many hours later, well into the deep night, another young man on the side of the street asks if he could write me a poem for some change. He asks about my evening, so I show him the photograph of the trumpet player. On the back of a restaurant order slip, he types away. And with every keystroke, the rhythms mix in my head.

"Trumpet blurred on Frenchmen St." (click to enlarge).

As the bands play on, the sounds and the words and the keys and the brass and the years upon years of melodies and rhythms fill my mind. The search is over, but I didn’t find the jazz.

Instead, it has found me.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Samira Elghoul January 6, 2011 at 10:23 am

That’s my favorite note you’ve ever written! :)
<3

Reply

Talar Demirdjian November 18, 2013 at 12:10 am

I just re-read this, and it made my night all over again :)

Reply

Meedo November 18, 2013 at 12:20 am

Glad. :)

Reply

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