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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