We landed in New Orleans scant hours ago and already it’s begun.
As twilight closes in, my wife and I strolling along the French Quarter’s Bourbon Street past eighteenth-century buildings decorated by flickering gaslight wall sconces and gingerbread wrought iron balconies, we get our first indication that at long last we’ve made it to New Orleans.
First comes a booming rhythmic echo reverberating around those selfsame buildings. Now a tuba joins the serenade, then clarinet then trumpet. Now people turn the corner onto Bourbon Street led by a raucous band (known as “second line” in local vernacular) belting out the strains of a tune called – what else? – “Bourbon Street Parade.”
At the front of the crowd a couple prances along hand-in-hand. Newlyweds no doubt, buying into a local tradition.
For two chief reasons this city has been on my must-do list for years.
To be sure, NOLA’s got lots to offer everyone, a repository of culture, of history, of oft-times R-rated fun.
But for me, NOLA performs a duet dear to my heart.
Think jazz. Think jambalaya.
I met my wife while I was playing in a Dixieland band. Dixieland first saw the light of day here.
Lest you think me one-dimensional (or two-dimensional rather), both are great metaphors for this city snugged down on the shores of the Mississippi; both are born of NOLA’s unique history.
First settled as a French colony, Spanish influences took over, then French again then, around 1803, it was firmly American.
By around 1731 enslaved people of Africa descent formed 30% of the population, by 1800 fully half NOLA’s population boasted African roots.
African musical traditions ultimately gave birth to jazz. Jazz couldn’t have happened anywhere else.
That history also contributes to NOLA’s primacy as a culinary destination.
Each cultural addition to the city brought its own cuisine. Think Creole, think Cajun, even think French and Spanish.
Jambalaya is composed of rice, vegetables and meat. A dish of jambalaya, like NOLA itself, is a conglomeration of Creole, Cajun, African, Caribbean and even First Nations influences.
Even the name’s a virtual melting pot: some attribute it to a combination of the French word for ham (jambon) and the African word for rice (aya).
To be fair the appeal of NOLA isn’t limited to jazz and jambalaya.
History buffs will love just strolling the French Quarter. The National World War II Museum with its galleries offering multimedia, interactive exhibits outlining the American mission during that war is a must-do. The Cathedral is worth some time – its construction was finished late in the eighteenth century – as well as the neighbouring Cabildo (host to part of the Louisiana State Museum) and the Presbytére, repository of local history from Mardi Gras to Hurricane Katrina.
For that matter, the perfect partnership of history and jazz will greet visitors to the New Orleans Jazz Museum, housed in the old U.S. Mint building.
This facility offers a year’s worth of performances along with the world’s largest collection of jazz-related artifacts.
But don’t just limit your visit to jazz, jambalaya and history.
Make sure to include a visit to the Garden District, with its cornucopia of antebellum mansions. Channel your inner vampire with a visit to Lafayette Cemetery No. 1, boasting spooky tombs in the shade of trees shrouded in Spanish moss.
Exercise your cultural muscles with a visit to the NOLA Art Gallery, amid a fertile greenspace in City Park. Admire the nearby sculpture garden, featuring masterpieces from the likes of Rodin and Henry Moore.
Or maybe just get thee to a jazz venue.
Our own quest takes us to Louis Armstrong Park and nearby Congo Square. Come on a Sunday afternoon and the place where jazz began still resounds with syncopated rhythms, energetic dancing and a variety of other instrumentalists who celebrate the African influences on the idiom.
After our visit there I accomplish one more seminal goal.
We discover, in an intimate courtyard at the Gumbo Shop, the best jambalaya in the world.
Words defy me.
We follow that with a pilgrimage to Preservation Hall. The musicians performing here may well be among the most famous of NOLA exports.
There, in an admittedly rudimentary building that feels like it could topple any minute, we get front row seats to a Preservation Hall Dixieland concert. Feels like having the best jazz band in the world in your living room.
But my pilgrimage is not yet over.
On Sunday night we make our way to the veritable avenue of music: Frenchmen’s Street.
Here in a couple of city blocks we stroll past no less than seven different bars, live music emanating from each.
A Dixieland standard called “Muskrat Ramble” draws me inexorably into one establishment called Bamboula’s, named for a traditional African drum and style of dance.
Here we grab stage-side seats amid décor characterized by a wagon wheel chandelier, garish gold paint and weathered brick backdrop to the stage where a woman in a fedora pumps out a descant line on her clarinet, right next to a trombone player whose horn gleams in a spotlight.
I find myself tapping the rhythm with my foot, even as I scan the menu.
Now, in one of those wonderful moments of synchronicity, even as the server brings me my jambalaya, the band bursts into a rousing rendition of the tune with the same name.
It’s a memorable juncture in our exploration of NOLA, perfect ending to a tale of jazz and jambalaya.
MORE ABOUT NEW ORLEANS
GETTING THERE: Air Canada offers direct flights daily from Toronto.
WHERE TO STAY: While we go for a bit bigger room (if not as charming) at Sonesta ES Suites New Orleans Convention Centre, a fifteen-minute stroll from the French Quarter, Hotel Le Marais is a boutique property right in the heart of that popular area and has charm to spare.
WHAT TO DO: Whatever else you do (and there’s no shortage of things to do here), don’t miss the show at Preservation Hall, and be sure to do jambalaya at the Gumbo Shop in the French Quarter, consistently rated home to some of the best Creole cuisine in NOLA.