New Orleans is one of the only places in the world where you encounter a city, a culture, and a music scene all at the same time. When I arrived here a year ago, I wasn’t prepared for how interwoven music, dance, food, and history are in this city, and how quickly I would be swept up by the spirit of the place. Living here has transpired into the most amazing and intimate experience of my life!
The musical community in New Orleans reminds me of Winnipeg. If you give respect, stay humble, and have a great attitude, you are welcome to sit in, play, and learn on the spot. Very rarely do you see musicians trying to cut each other down. Very rarely will you see someone not invited to sit in. You can work as long as you have the drive, a lack of ego, and a deep love for this music.
Like anywhere, the music scene is spread out across the entire city. Bourbon Street, in the French quarter, is the most famous destination for your general, every-part-of-the-world tourist. Smells, sights, and sounds hit your senses in an intoxicating manner. Still, apart from two jazz and two blues clubs, you’re more likely to hear Journey, AC/DC, and Katy Perry than you are to hear traditional New Orleans music.
Frenchmen Street is more of the local hang, although many tourists come through. Here you’ll find brass bands, funk bands, traditional jazz/BAM, straight ahead, gypsy, and even heavy experimental grunge jazz. This is the real launching off point to discover all of the great music in this city, primarily because this is the street where guys who are working it out will make their rent. There’s not as much room for stepping outside of the box of whatever style you’re playing.
Heading uptown gets you to legendary clubs, such as Tipitinas and The Maple Leaf (no Canadian affiliation), where you’ll hear original New Orleans funk, blues, rock, and soul, from the 40s to the now. These two clubs host bands like Galactic, George Porter Jr, Rebirth Brass Band, and many local groups that are on national and international circuits. Many touring artists come through, and on any day of the week, you’ll find them sitting in with whatever group is on the hit.
The St Claude neighborhood is home to The Prime Example, a venue that hosts some of the heaviest sessions, along with some of the nation’s top BAM musicians. It also contains the grunge/experimental/burlesque scene clubs such as Siberia and The Allways Lounge, and the Hi Ho Lounge, where you can go every Saturday to hear DJ Soul Sister spinning the nastiest in 60s, 70s, and 80s funk, soul and hip hop.
“Studying music” in New Orleans is as old as the city’s musical life. Young musicians are mentored by the older players, and there’s no beating around the bush when it comes to the giving and receiving of knowledge. People’s egos are set off to the side when the learning and listening starts—you see a real openness to receiving criticism and generosity in sharing it.
If you want a clear picture of what’s happening in New Orleans, you really have to come down here! Jazzfest and French Quarter Festival are only two of forty official festivals throughout the year, so whenever you visit, you can catch some of the greatest music in the world and soak up the city’s party spirit. Here’s fair warning though: I came to visit—and I’m still here.