Louisiana: On the Big Easy beat

By Marty Duda

New Orleans is worthy of a pilgrimage for music lovers, writes Marty Duda.

One of New Orleans' many jazz bands performs in front of Cafe Du Monde in New Orleans. Photo / 123RF
One of New Orleans' many jazz bands performs in front of Cafe Du Monde in New Orleans. Photo / 123RF

It was a spur of the moment decision. I needed to go to Florida to take care of some family matters, but decided that I would spend a few days in New Orleans.

The Crescent City, after all, is the birthplace of jazz and rock 'n' roll, with a musical heritage that reaches back to the 19th century - Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Fats Domino, Dr John ... and countless other great musicians all lived and recorded in the Big Easy.

For myself, a long-time record collector and music fanatic, it was a spiritual homecoming.

So, after a 12-hour flight to San Francisco, a 10-hour layover and then another four-and-a-half-hour flight, I found myself at Louis Armstrong Airport at 5am on a Sunday. Having not slept for any length of time (I'm too tall to get comfortable enough to snooze on a plane) I rubbed my eyes and walked out into the concourse.

"Okay," I muttered to myself, "Where's Fats Domino?"

I looked around and low and behold there was legendary New Orleans songwriter, producer and pianist Allen Toussaint queuing up at security looking incredibly dapper in a black suit and two-toned shoes. No one had the right to look that smart at 5am on a Sunday.

I had been in New Orleans for five minutes and had already run into a musical hero - things were looking good.

A friend from New York had come down to share my New Orleans experience and we were staying at a bed and breakfast on the outskirts of the French Quarter. After a brief nap, it was time to take in the city.

We headed into Frenchman St, a two-block area brimming with cafes, night clubs and live music. There were bands playing everywhere. We poked our heads into one bar, possibly The Spotted Cat, and were drawn to the blues music.

There was no cover charge, the beer was cheap and the music was fantastic. The singer was a large black man who sounded like Howlin' Wolf and the guitarist was a white man in a cowboy hat playing a mean Fender. I spoke to him later and found out his name was Bill Gregory and he was a veteran of a string of bands dating back to the 1960s.

It was like that everywhere we went - world-class musicians playing in half-filled bars with no cover charge.

The next night, we had tickets to see Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds at the Mahalia Jackson Theater. The show was stunning, especially Cave's take on Stagger Lee, a song made famous by Lloyd Price, who recorded it in New Orleans back in 1958.

We then ventured out to Bourbon St and found it pretty awful: strip clubs, T-shirt shops and cover bands playing old Bob Seger songs. On the plus side, we ran into Nick Cave and a few Bad Seeds and thanked them for the show. They were courteous, but obviously had other things on their minds.

We found a run-down looking record store across the street from our accommodation. Jim Russell Records has been in business for over 45 years and is crammed with vinyl. It looks a mess and smells musty - a collector's dream. The LPs were over-priced and in bad shape, but there were thousands of vintage 45s on sale for $3 a piece - and there was a sale: buy two, get one free! I came away with obscure gems by Lorraine Ellison, Tommy McLain, Betty Everett and Joe Tex.

Later, we made a pilgrimage to the site of the J&M Recording Studio, where rock and roll pioneers like Fats Domino, Little Richard, Ray Charles and Roy Brown made many of their earliest - and finest - recordings. Located on the corner of Rampart and Dumain, the building is still there, although the studio closed in 1956. Now it's a laundromat with photos of Fats Domino and Lloyd Price hanging opposite rows of rumbling washing machines and dryers.

My stay also included a trip out on Canal St to the Chickie Wah Wah club to see boogie-woogie pianist Jon Cleary. When asked what the door charge was, we were told, almost apologetically, $8. This for a musician who has played with Bonnie Raitt, BB King and Irma Thomas.

On my final day, I met up with musician Kristin Hersh, The Throwing Muses frontwoman who has been living here for six years. When I asked her why she moved to New Orleans, she said: "I love that the air is infused with music."

She added that a homeless man had told her, "There is a siren's song in the humidity."

That was certainly my experience.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Air New Zealand flies double daily to Los Angeles from Auckland, increasing to three daily services from December-March.

Further information: See DiscoverAmerica.com and neworleansonline.com for more on visiting The Big Easy.

You can hear Marty Duda discussing music with Kathryn Ryan on Radio New Zealand's Nine to Noon show on Wednesday mornings.

- NZ Herald

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