There are close to 100 stations on my Pandora playlist, ranging from classical and folk to rock and hip-hop. Despite the selection of artists and songs at my fingertips, I always seem to find myself choosing jazz. It’s comfort music, soothing my soul at the end of a long day, beckoning a liberal pour of red with a side of couch collapse and longneck candles.
My “go-to’s” are always the same: Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra, and maybe Norah Jones or Michael Buble to remind me that good music is not just a thing of the past.
With a weekend on my hands, music on my mind, and a city on the verge of celebrating its tricentennial, I couldn’t think of a better time to visit the birthplace of jazz.
“Honey, pack your bags. We’re going to New Orleans!”
IF YOU GO: NEW ORLEANS
>> Stay: Old No. 77 Hotel & Chandlery
• Compere Lapin
• Napoleon House
• Cafe du Monde
• Burlesque Brunch at SoBou
• Hot Tin’s rooftop bar
• Free Wheelin’
• New Orleans Pharmacy Museum
• Old U.S. Mint
• The Presbytere
• Preservation Hall
>> More info: neworleans.com
It was January, the month NOLA turned the big 300 — and just weeks before Mardi Gras on Feb. 13 — presenting the perfect opportunity for my husband, Benjamin, and me to check this vibrant city off our bucket list. Despite thunderstorms in the forecast, our goals were to get lost in the French Quarter; drink Pimm’s Cup before noon; dance in the streets; lose track of time at Cafe du Monde; peel crawfish like locals; eat oysters and maybe alligator; and above all, soak in the jazz.
We purposely chose to visit “New Oar-linz” (not “New Or-leenz”) close enough to Carnival to feel the energy, yet far enough to avoid the chaos. We’re crazy and all, but err on the side of 40-something caution. What little we knew about our destination was from word-of-mouth tales of debauchery, feathered costumes, and flash-for-beads. We set out to break all preconceived notions and simply discover the old, the new, and the whatever that came our way.
Our lodging for the weekend was Old No. 77 Hotel & Chandlery. Located three blocks from the French Quarter, it once served as an 1850s warehouse in the port. A major renovation in 2015 resurrected the building into a swanky, boutique hotel with suites curated by local artists. Hardwood floors and exposed-brick walls lead to a rotating art gallery. On the ground floor is Compere Lapin — one of New Orleans’ top restaurants (not to mention our favorite of the trip) serving Caribbean-and European- takes on local cuisine.
Like most curious travelers who visit this magical city, we wasted no time on our first night, grabbing our coats and heading straight into the darkness.
Within the French Quarter is where beauty lies, boasting buildings dating back to the 18th century when the Spanish ruled. Tucked away on Chartres Street sat the charming Angeline by Chef Alex Harrel. The intimate dining room looked out onto the rain-soaked pavement where reflections of horse-drawn carriages and gas lamps danced with themselves. Happy Hour boasted $3 beers and $5 plates of crispy cauliflower and pate. We stayed beyond discounts for roasted oysters, cast-iron cornbread and honest dishes like herb-brined chicken and Louisiana short ribs.
Despite having yet to fully indulge (New Orleans style), the following morning was particularly painful. We had committed to a bike tour with Free Wheelin’ without accounting for the two-hour time difference.
Luckily, the weather cooperated as we straddled our “cruisers” and embarked with our fellow travelers on a three-hour, 10-mile tour of the city like a classroom on wheels. My questions were answered about the width of the Mississippi River, the population and everything in between.
Founded by the French in 1718 under Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville, New Orleans lured pirates, prostitutes, pickpockets and partiers. Perhaps we have them to thank (or blame) for NOLA’s 24-hour bars, no last calls, and freedom to carry open containers of hooch. With 140 annual festivals, the city is also the birthplace of classic cocktails like the Sazerac and Hurricane.
We pedaled our retro rides through the Marigny and Bywater neighborhoods, home to the largest collection of 19th-century homes in America. We cruised to Esplanade Avenue, Saint Louis Cemetery No. 3, and the famed neighborhood of Treme, known for its jazz clubs, soul food and Creole heritage.
Despite it being almost noon, the streets were eerily empty. What signs of life we did see were glimpses into a world where days seemed to tick away by the second. Rocking on porches of old wooden cottages were locals waiting for nothing in particular. Lazy dogs lifted their heads with little effort to bark. The smell of fried chicken floated from open windows, causing our bicycle gang to slow in passing.
Our guide pointed us upriver, downriver and geographically everywhere in relation to the Mississippi, but never north, south, east or west. It’s like the compass doesn’t exist there. We crossed lanes by waiting on “neutral ground” as opposed to “the median,” stopping midway at City Park for beignets and cafe au lait. This was our first taste of the deep-fried nuggets of sweetened dough dusted in powdered sugar. They became our habit.
For lunch we stopped at the Napoleon House, a beloved landmark in the historical French Quarter. Dating back to 1791, this former house of NOLA’s first mayor, Nicholas Girod, has a vibrant history, including a plot to provide refuge for the exiled Napoleon Bonaparte. While the plan never came to pass, the building has been known as the Napoleon House ever since, despite its former role in 1914 as an Italian grocery store and its current one as the best place to get a Pimm’s Cup before noon.
We sampled traditional recipes dating back over two centuries, like alligator sausage po’boy, jambalaya and the Italian muffuletta, paying homage to the immigrants who first opened delis along the riverfront.
Just next door was the New Orleans Pharmacy Museum, showcasing the history of pharmacology at the site of the apothecary of America’s first licensed pharmacist, Louis J. Dufilho Jr. On display were propaganda for superstitious cures, exhibits of early medicines and potions used by voodoo practitioners.
We strolled through the French Market and Jackson Square, where artists, musicians, palm readers and dancers compete for dollars with talent on the steps of St. Louis Cathedral. Escaping the rain, we visited the Presbytere with exhibits on Mardi Gras and Hurricane Katrina. When you ask a local about one of the worst disasters in American history, they won’t tell you that 80 percent of the city flooded or that hundreds of lives were lost. Instead, they’ll tell you why they stayed: the energy and curious culture of New Orleans.
From the antique shops on Royal Street to the House of Voodoo on Bourbon Street, the city’s allure revealed itself, especially at the Old U.S. Mint. With the largest jazz collection in the world, on display are photographs, records, manuscripts and instruments belonging to legends like Bix Beiderbecke, Edward “Kid” Ory, George Lewis, Sidney Bechet and Dizzy Gillespie. I looked down at Louis Armstrong’s first coronet and could almost hear the music.
For us, it was the start of something remarkable, as if the city’s heart skipped a beat because someone noticed — recognizing that the sounds of yesterday fostered an artistic enlightenment that not only survived and persevered but changed music forever. Colorblind to race, gender, age and politics, jazz has gifted us all in spite of our differences.
That evening, magic happened at Preservation Hall, the cornerstone of the jazz scene. Established in 1961, this dark, intimate venue existed for the sole purpose of honoring one of America’s most innovative art forms.
Nearly 50 of us sat shoulder- to-shoulder on wooden pews, entranced by the acoustic performance by local masters. Going where the music led them, each one left us spellbound with their improvisational solos that came from the deepest parts of their souls.
For us, this was the highlight, getting to witness the real-time evolution of this venerable and living tradition. But we were far from done in discovering all of NOLA’s appeal. The street scene was alive with every type of performer imaginable, each one trying to outdo the other for attention. We caught a burlesque show at SoBou and cocktails at Hot Tin’s rooftop bar — a speakeasy so cool that you wondered how you got in.
For dinner, we ducked into Antoine’s, an 1840s New Orleans institution famous for inventing Oysters Rockefeller. As one of the oldest family-run restaurants in the country, this classic French restaurant is equally known for its extensive wine list with more than 20,000 bottles lining the 170-foot-long cellar. Here, we dug into crawfish and threw back Louisiana gulf oysters with pate.
After beignets at the infamous Cafe du Monde, we walked in the rain, stopping at the sound of an elderly man drumming on a bucket. We stood mesmerized by his rhythms and customized lyrics gifted to each person who passed. I asked what kept him in New Orleans.
“Girl …” he said, pointing with his drumstick. “It chose me.”
Back home, I thought about all we had experienced, wondering if jazz would sound the same after this trip. Opening my playlist, I poured a glass of red, scrolled to Ella and realized that nothing was the same after New Orleans. It had chosen me.