While enjoying my cafe au lait and beignets at the Cafe du Monde, I thought I heard the satisfying boom of a bass drum. It proved to be coming from the other side of Jackson Square, in front of the Cabildo, where a traditional brass band had set up to play for the handful of tourists out on such a cold, dark and windy day.
Today was my busiest speaking day at the conference, so I didn’t have time to leave the Quarter breakfast. Instead, my friend Rico Brooks and I walked from the hotel to a place called the Fleur-De-Lis on Chartres Street, where we ate breakfast, and by the time we made it back to the hotel, it was time for my morning distribution panel.
After that, I had a few hours until 3 PM to prowl the Vieux Carre, so I walked down to the French Market, and then back to a book shop on Decatur near Jackson Square, where I bought a few books. Around the corner, in an alley behind the Cabildo I found a gelateria, and I had a quick, cool dessert and a few brief moments out of the stifling heat. But by now, it was time for my afternoon panel, and so I walked back quickly to the hotel. The afternoon forum was about the future of Southern hip-hop, and I was the moderator. As is so often the case these days, the forum devolved into a discussion about “positive vs. negative rap”, and the role that major labels may or may not play in determining the trends.
After that was a demo listening session that was more fun than I had expected. Of course there were the truly bad artists, but there were also promising ones like a county band out of Shreveport called Dixie Tradition, truly outstanding artists like Josh Weintein from New York, whose demo sounded like a cross between hip-hop, Dr. John , Lou Reed and Tom Waits, and already well-known established artists like Baton Rouge’s Henry Turner Jr. There were also the odd, genre-busting acts like a “progressive, melodic, metal” group called Psychometry.
At the end of the listening session I was both exhausted and hungry, so I fell in with a guy from the Tipitina’s Co-Op office who agreed to give me a ride to the Faubourg Marigny where the showcases were to be. His car was parked at Harrah’s, and as we rode back past our hotel, there was a traffic jam with police cars and ambulances everywhere. A passerby yelled to us that someone had been stabbed in front of the hotel on Canal Street.
Down in Marigny, crowds were beginning to gather for the string of clubs along Frenchmen Street, but there were few of our conference people in the area yet, and the Marigny Brasserie where they were allegedly gathering for dinner proved to be a more expensive establishment. So the guy from Tipitina’s recommended a place back on Decatur called Fiorello’s, and they did have an excellent shrimp dinner, if a little pricey. He was apparently a musician, and began telling me about how New Orleans’ music scene had changed for the worse, and he continued his complaint as we walked back to Frenchmen Street. “I once lived in New York”, he said. “Maybe I’ll move back there. Nobody wants to pay anything around here, and they favor the musicians who have moved here since the storm.”
The rap showcase was to be in the upstairs of a club called the Blue Nile, but the downstairs was interesting enough, gutbucket blues from an elderly bluesman, but upstairs, the hip-hop DJ had the beats and grooves going, the show waiting for an audience. The small, brightly colored room with a bar and pool table was attractive, but its best feature was its outdoor upstairs balcony overlooking Frenchmen Street. and the brilliantly painted gingerbread house across the street which was also a club. It was now dusk, and directly across the street was a three-story apartment building with courtyards of tables and chairs on each level. At the ground level was a group of young whites partying and hanging out, while on the second floor landing, there was a similar group of Blacks, while the warm breezes were blowing in my face amidst the sounds of booming cars on the street and mingled musics from the various clubs and bars, the ring of laughter and voices from the street, an occasional “yeah you right” or “where ya’t”. Soon there was another sound, a young man who had ridden up on a bicycle and was singing a rendition of “A Change Is Gonna Come”, and clapping with himself to keep time. He had found an audience in the group of Blacks on the apartment building’s second-story courtyard, and they were yelling encouragement to him as I turned to the Tipitina’s dude and said “How could anyone want to move away from this?” Another conference panelist from Nashville threw some money down to the singer from our balcony, and I sat for a moment, wondering at what I had just seen.The local musician had complained that the New Orleans of today could not ever be what had been lost in Katrina, yet I felt I was witnessing the cultural spirit of New Orleans at work tonight on Frenchmen Street, a dramatic reminder that the “Soul is Waterproof” bumperstickers were more than just a cool slogan.
At 10 PM, I made the walk down to Cafe Negril to catch Josh Weinstein’s set, but there the vibe wasn’t as cool. The building was attractive, painted with reggae images and slogans, but the place was crowded, and some of the people had had a little too much to drink. Weinstein’s music was impressive though, consistently good, infused with a New Orleans tinge that belies his New York roots. I got back to the Blue Nile just in time to catch Kilo and Euricka’s show, and after that, I ducked briefly into a bookstore that was still open despite the lateness of the hour, knowing that I shouldn’t go to meet temptation on its own ground when I shouldn’t be spending the money. Wanting everything, I ended up buying nothing and started the long walk back to the hotel.
At the Cafe du Monde, I paused and stopped, deciding to enjoy a cafe au lait and beignets for my last night in the city, choosing a table that happened to be one over from Eric Cager, the organizer of our conference who was sitting with Rico Brooks and a couple of other panelists. New Orleans really is like a small town everyone says, and it does seem to work out like that. We ended up joining each other, and then walking back together toward the hotel. Near the Peaches Records, as if by some preappointed sign, all the trees erupted with swarming birds pouring out of them and into the sky. “Parakeets,” Eric Cager explained to us as the phenomenon continued from where we were back to Jackson Square and throughout the Quarter. “Some pets got out, and they have multiplied until they have taken over the city.” Back in my hotel room, I slept with the windows open onto the city, noticing flashes in the east that eventually grew nearer, then winds, and finally torrential downpours.
I decided to eat breakfast at a place called the Oak Street Cafe, which was in the far uptown neighborhood of Carrollton, so I walked up Canal to Carondelet, and caught the St. Charles trolley line there. The weather was sunny, but not particularly hot, and with the windows open, it was actually quite cool. The St. Charles route through the Uptown was quite an unusual one. Past Lee Circle, it passed boutique hotels and restaurants, beautifully-landscaped Garden District mansions, historic college campuses like Loyola and Tulane, and Aubudon Park and zoo. I also noticed New Orleans’ famous Exposition Boulevard, the street that never was , a “street” that can only be walked.
When the trolley line swung northward at Carrollton Avenue, most people got off at the famous Camellia Grill where I had eaten last year, but I continued further north to Oak Street, whose brightly colored row of shops and cafes was quite welcoming. On the corner with Carrollton Avenue was an old bank that had become an Indian restaurant, and another ancient building on the opposite corner (also perhaps a former bank) had become a coffee bar. Down the first block westward on Oak were a gelato bar, a snowball stand called Belle of the Ball, a independent book shop and the Oak Street Cafe.
The latter was fairly crowded, in keeping with its good reputation for breakfast, and, as I had heard, there was a live blues pianist performing, but what intrigued me more was the terrific local art work on nearly every wall. On the east wall was a vivid painting of a University of New Orleans basketball player, so realistic that I almost expected him to move at any minute. On the west wall behind the pianist were captivating paintings of jazz bands and tuba players. Unfortunately the prices were all rather steep. As I was eating breakfast, a blues singer from our conference came in wearing a big cowboy hat, and he got up a sang one song with the pianist. Before I left, he told me about a hit song he was getting played on blues radio stations, and, after walking further west down the street, I heard it playing on WWOZ from the speakers out in front of Squeals Bar-B-Que.
The Maple Leaf Bar area had been completely fenced off due to road construction, but I still walked down there to see it, and the Jacque-Imo’s Restaurant next door. After I had walked back toward Carrollton Avenue, I ducked into the bookstore for awhile, and then I went across the street to the gelateria for a cold dessert before getting back on the trolley.
An older couple sitting behind me were talking about going to the shops on Magazine Street, so I decided to get off where they did and walk down to Magazine, a five-block walk past a large former orphanage called St. Elizabeth’s that now belongs to Anne Rice. But five blocks in the heat of the day is stifling, so by the time I got to Magazine Street, I was both tired and drenched with sweat, and none of the shops in that area interested me much. But there was a store called McKeown’s Books and Difficult Music another few blocks to the south on Tchoupitoulas, so I walked down that way, past a place called Rose’s Jazz Hall, where a young women who had just walked outside called to me and asked me if I was J-Dogg. I thought perhaps it was someone from our conference, but it turned out to be the Shreveport music journalist and musicologist Kathryn Hobgood, who had moved to New Orleans a few years ago, and was now working on her masters at Tulane. She was about to get married, and had been checking out the jazz hall as a possible reception spot. I thought about what an odd coincidence it was as I walked on into the bookstore, where I bought an interesting book about the spiritual churches in New Orleans.
Still thoroughly hot, I walked across to the opposite corner to enjoy a snowball at a place that Kathryn had recommended, whose sign boasted of 70 years in business. With that refreshment, I began the long walk back northward to the trolley route, and then I rode the trolley back into the Quarter. After hanging around the conference events at the hotel for awhile, I got my car and drove out to Bud’s Broiler on Calhoun at Claiborne, where I had a charcoal burger with hickory sauce that was delicious, if a little small. Actually, it was small enough that I decided to head down the block to the Frostop and try their Lot-a-Burger with bacon and cheese. The Frostop burger was big, and all right, but I had to say that Bud’s Burger won the competition in my opinion.
At the coffee bar across the street, the talk on the outside tables was about the death penalty, perhaps because a New Orleans jury had imposed that ultimate penalty on a young man convicted of shooting five teenagers in the Central City neighborhood last year. The owner had been one of the debaters, but when I walked inside, he soon joined me, and I ordered a cappuccino to go.
Back in the quarter, there wasn’t a whole lot going on. The hip-hop showcase was scheduled to be at Peaches Records, and the DJ had set up there, and the New Orleans hip-hop artist Truth Universal was there, but there was little crowd, and the show hadn’t really started yet. The record store had a lot of interesting books about New Orleans, but I really didn’t have much extra money to spend, so I got tired of looking, and walked down past Jackson Square to the French Market where other acts were supposed to be playing for Cutting Edge. Those events had ended at 9 PM, however, and now the French Market was largely dead except for the Cafe Du Monde, where I stopped for coffee and beignets. Finally, with nothing else going on, I walked back to the hotel.
Yet another breakfast spot that I had read about in a New Orleans novel was the Camellia Grill out in Uptown on Carrollton Avenue, so I decided to catch the St. Charles streetcar and ride out there. The nearest stop was on the downtown side of Canal, so I walked down Camp Street past a restaurant called Mother Clucker’s (only in New Orleans!) and got on the streetcar for $1.50. The view through the Garden District was beautiful, with many stately old mansions and the occasional restaurant, and the weather was cool and bright. I got off at Carrollton Avenue, and had only about a half-block walk to the restaurant, which was an old white building with Greek columns out in front. Inside, however, the place was very crowded, with counter seating and a few tables, as well as a line of people waiting for tables. It had only recently reopened from Katrina, but it was still a local landmark, as I heard people greeting each other with the customary “Where y’at?” and saw a group of uniformed Catholic schoolgirls out on the steps who apparently had stopped by for breakfast on their way to classes. I had read that the restaurant had been reopened under new management, but the breakfasts were really good (and cheap), if a little frantic since space is at a premium in the tiny establishment.
Next door, a seafood restaurant and sports bar was in the process of opening for the day, with an employee sweeping the sidewalk out in front and more “where y’at’s” exchanged between him and some neighborhood folks on the sidewalk. The weather was beginning to heat up as I rode the streetcar back to Canal Street, and when I arrived at the hotel, registration had begun at the conference.
I met some people and networked for awhile, and then decided to go to Domilise’s Po-Boys for lunch, so I walked to the foot of Canal and caught the Tchoupitoulas bus headed Uptown. When I got to the right area, I got off and walked a block from Tchoupitoulas to Annunciation Street, which was a street of old 19th-century cottages with the latticework and front porches, battered, but still standing, As soon as I turned the corner onto Annunciation, I could hear the rat-a-tat of drum sticks, and, sitting on the porch of the last house before the big building on the corner, was a small boy, maybe about 11 or 12 years old who was practicing his sticking with a practice pad on his knees. The corner building had no signs visible at first, but around the corner on the sidestreet was a small sign that read “Domilise’s.” Unfortunately, the restaurant was obviously closed, and a small sign in the door stated that they didn’t open on Thursdays or Sundays. Somewhat disappointed, I asked the boy if he knew of any other good po-boy spots in the neighborhood. “Just them on the corner, ” he replied, so I walked back over to the shopping center on Tchoupitoulas, and while I didn’t find any poboys, I did find a PJ’s Coffee and Wine Bar, where I was able to cool my disappointment with a chocolate granita.
It took an hour for the bus to come back through headed back to the French Quarter, and I made my way back to the hotel. Then, walking into the quarter, I had hoped to take one of the boat rides out on the Mississippi River, but I soon found that their last runs were at 2:30 in the afternoon. As I walked along the Riverwalk, I noticed the men in boats along the rocks at the river’s edge, frantically spraying water and detergent, trying to clean the results of an oil spill some weeks back that had resulted from a collision between an oil tanker and a tugboat. The acrid smell of oil (and probably solvents as well) was covering the whole Wollenberg Park area, but I walked up to the Spanish Plaza at the foot of Canal Street, and into the Riverwalk Mall. The mall, which had been an exhibit building during the 1984 World’s Fair, had lots of shops, but not much in the way of restaurants. Many former eating places were closed and abandoned, so I walked back into the Quarter, and made my way to the Redfish Grill, which was owned by one of the famous Brennan family of restauranteurs. The place was a little pricey, but not excessively so, and the seafood was incredibly good.
Back at the hotel, the lobby was filled with members of the Houston Texans football team, who were in town for a pre-season game with the Saints at the Superdome. People from the Cutting Edge conference were asking some of them if they were attending the music conference, and they kept having to explain that they were football players. Around 10 PM, I walked back east to Jackson Square and made my way to the Cafe du Monde, where I enjoyed some beignets and cafe au lait. Then I headed back to the hotel, hung out for awhile, and ultimately went to bed.
I got a fairly late start out of Memphis, heading for the Cutting Edge Music Business Conference in New Orleans, and I stopped for a lunch at Back Yard Burger in Batesville, Mississippi. Fighting sleepiness as I headed down I-55, I pulled off at Jazz & Java in Madison for a breve latte, and then I continued further south into Louisiana.
Parking in the familiar lot in the French Quarter next to what had been Tower Records, I walked over to Louisiana Music Factory on Decatur Street to look at some compact discs. The store sold nearly any CD made of Louisiana music, and I ended up buying about $50 worth of discs. I then decided to go around to the Westin Hotel and get checked into my room, but I soon found that there was no parking affiliated with the hotel, so the rates were outrageous, and there would be no in or out privileges. In effect, hotel guests were deprived of the use of their cars while in New Orleans, unless they wanted to pay over and over again each time they took their car out of the garage. All the same, the lobby was above the parking garage on the eleventh floor, and with large glass windows looking eastward over the French Quarter and toward Algiers Point, it was a dramatic and striking entrance to a most unusual hotel. As I checked in, the speakers in the hotel lobby were playing George Antheil’s Symphony for Five Instruments, which I also found surprising, as Antheil, a relatively obscure American composer, happens to be one of my favorites.
My room was high on the 14th floor, and had a similar view of the Quarter as did the lobby. Although the restaurant off the lobby was crowded, I feared that it would be too expensive, so I decided to walk around the French Quarter, looking for a place to eat dinner. My original plan had been to drive to someplace outside the tourist area, perhaps Ted’s Frostop which I had heard so much about, but the parking debacle prevented that, so I walked down Peters Street, past the Jax Brewery buildings, which were now largely vacant. There was an amber glow in the air as I passed Jackson Square and St. Louis Cathedral, with the lovely palm trees swaying in the breeze, and people were out, enjoying the cool, moist evening, sitting on porches, sitting on balconies, sitting on steps and talking; not as many musical sounds on this evening, more voices and cars, the sky now purple, blue and finally grey as I rounded the corner onto Bourbon by the Clover Grill, which I recalled from some novel I had read about New Orleans. Their signs bragged of burgers, but in the novel people had gone there for breakfast, so I made a mental note to head back there on some morning before I left the city.
Bourbon Street seemed tamer than I remembered it before Katrina- there were a few sex clubs, but many more normal music clubs and regular bars, one on a corner where a young Black drummer was in the middle of a funky solo that spilled out into the street. I had been aiming for the Embers Steakhouse, but, when I arrived I noticed the high prices on the menu, and, worse, the lack of any crowd of clientele, which had me worried about the food quality. So I kept walking, and finally ended up at Star Steak & Lobster, which was a truly tiny restaurant fairly close to my hotel. Altogether, the prices weren’t that bad and the food was decent, although the portions were small and I had to contend with a house musician who was alternately singing or playing saxophone accompanied by a pre-programmed box-not the music experience one would want to have in New Orleans.
The Quarter seemed strangely devoid of street music, compared to what I recalled from pre-Katrina days. Back then, it seemed common to come upon a brass band playing in Jackson Square, or maybe that’s just how my memories are of it. Snug Harbor was a little too far to walk to, and the name of the group playing there didn’t particularly sound like a straight-ahead jazz group, so I opted for the French Market instead, and the Cafe du Monde, where I sat outside enjoying beignets and a cup of cafe au lait with chicory, the quintessential New Orleans experience.
Back at my hotel, I learned that the pool was on the rooftop, so I rode up there, but I really couldn’t enjoy it, as I got lightheaded about being so far up on the roof with just some glass balcony railings rather than a sturdy concrete wall. Instead I headed back down to my room, opened the windows to let the lights of the French Quarter shine in, used my laptop as a CD player, and enjoyed some of the albums I had purchased at Louisiana Music Factory. Finally, I fell asleep in the overstuffed, luxurious bed, with the windows still open to the lights of the Vieux Carre.