The annual Jazz and Heritage Festival is an exciting time to visit New Orleans, with live music on every street corner, great Southern-style food to feast on and a really warm welcome from the locals
To me, New Orleans is the memory of an African-American musician sitting alone on the jetty steps, playing his saxophone as the sun set over the Mississippi river.
As the starting point of a music-inspired trip around America’s Deep South, my husband Graham and I visited New Orleans for a few days, including one day at the Jazz and Heritage Festival (JazzFest). We can genuinely recommend the hotel we stayed at, the Holiday Inn Express in Carondelet Street, which is located at the edge of the French Quarter and is very central to everything that is going on in the city.
Having been advised that New Orleans is pronounced 'Noo Orlins' or sometimes 'Nawlins', we set off walking through a city that seemed strangely familiar in places, as we recognised different streets and buildings from various movies. An unusual feature of the Mississippi here is that it flows along a natural ridge and is therefore higher than most of the city.
As it was festival time, there was a live performance in almost every street, and the music appeared to begin quite spontaneously. It's no use being in a hurry in New Orleans at JazzFest time. On one of our strolls, a banjo player started finger-picking a tune as he walked along, and people passing by just joined in. Someone pulled a harmonica out of a pocket, a trumpet appeared out of a carrier bag and suddenly there was a recognisable tune developing into something amazing. The newly-formed band just stopped in the street when a crowd formed around them and they simply played for as long as they felt like it. They seemed to perform music as naturally as breathing.
Of course, New Orleans is still living with the aftermath of the broken levees of Lake Pontchartrain but it is a city on the mend and filled with hope and spirit.
We were looking forward to trying the different foods of the Deep South and were fortunate to find The Court of Two Sisters restaurant in Royal Street (www.courtoftwosisters.com), famous for its sumptuous food and rich history. Here, we sat at a pleasant courtyard table while a trio played gentle jazz in a shady corner. Inside, you could help yourself to a buffet-style selection of the region’s most famous dishes and we spent a pleasant couple of hours experiencing new tastes and textures. The daily Jazz Brunch Buffet features seasonal dishes from the south - Creole jambalaya (a spicy rice dish cooked with stock and chopped seasoning - everyone's mother has their own special version); crawfish or crayfish (similar to small lobsters); gumbo (a hearty soup with many variations); andouille (a smoky Cajun sausage made with pork, onion and garlic); boudin (spicy pork with onions, rice and herbs); ceviche (a cold dish consisting of cubes of fish with chillies and citrus fruits); grillades (small pieces of meat in red wine with herbs and seasonings); po-boy (a thin crispy bread sandwich with a variety of filllings); and beignet (a flat doughnut without a hole, covered in powdered sugar - best eaten fresh and hot).
There were many more dishes to choose from and we could not leave without a final coffee and a taste of pecan pie. As our total food and drinks bill came to $91 including tax, plus a gratuity, it was not a cheap lunch, but we considered it money well spent, as we were able to sample a little bit of everything. We felt it was the best way of discovering what we liked and what we did not, and used this as a basis for ordering all our meals for the rest of our visit.
Please don’t be put off visiting the Jazz and Heritage Festival because you are not a jazz fan - it also embraces blues, country, gospel and much more. Previous headliners have included Billy Joel, James Taylor, Neil Young, Stevie Wonder, Etta James, Kings of Leon, Alison Krauss and Tony Bennet. Part of the fun is being open to new styles of music you haven’t heard before. JazzFest takes place over two weekends in late April/early May, and tickets can be bought in advance or on the gate. For example, a single day adult ticket (which gives access to the festival fields and stages) would be $40 in advance but $50 on the gate. There are varous combinations of ticket packages, and you can buy upgrades that give different levels of privileges for access and seating.
The festival fields also feature many stalls selling locally-made items and souvenirs. Arriving in the mid-morning sunshine, I bought a Jazz Festival denim shirt as a souvenir and headed for the Southern Comfort (SoCo) blues tent. Coco Robicheaux and Spiritland were playing here, while Brian Seeger performed a set in the AT&T jazz tent. The Acura stage supported the Batiste Bros Band, who played a spirited rendition of Jambalaya/L’il Liza Jane. On the Jazz and Heritage stage, a band was performing a lively number, dressed in full Native American war feathers.
At this point, the sun disappeared and a rainstorm blew in from the north. As it started to rain, the band humorously began to sing ‘Wherever we come from, we dance in the rain’. The music was compulsive, so we pulled on our previously-purchased Bourbon Street souvenir rain ponchos (we are British, after all!) and joined the rest of the audience who were dancing in the rain in front of the stage. Despite the downpour, the temperature was mild, and the camaraderie was infectious as we all danced and sang in the rain. When you are wet, you are wet! I will confess though, that even though we are well used to it raining on most outdoor events in the UK, we did give in and leave the festival fields, stopping for a coffee and hot beignet on the way back to the hotel.
Later that day, as New Orleans had dried out, we boarded the Natchez, one of the last working paddle steamers in the US, for a very enjoyable evening cruise on the Mississippi. While we had our Creole-style dinner, a small ragtime jazz band entertained us as the sun set over the great river. For anyone interested, there was an escorted tour down into the bowels of the paddle steamer, where we stood in a safe area and watched the huge pistons turning the wheel. We were surprised to learn that although New Orleans is a major port, it is 110 miles from the coast at the Gulf of Mexico.
Almost every establishment in New Orleans provides some kind of musical entertainment in the evenings. There are too many to name, but we can recommend the award-winning Crescent City Brewhouse (527 Decatur Street, near the river; www.crescentcitybrewhouse.com), where we had supper one night. Local musicians perform live jazz here every night and local artists display their work on the walls. The Brewhouse opened in 1991, producing four house beers - as a taster, they offer the Beer Sampler, with a small glass of each type so you can find the one you like best. We tried them all while struggling to finish the excellent Brewhouse BLT sandwich (there's an extensive regional menu). At a total of $35 for the two of us, this was excellent value. My personal favourite was the coppery Red Stallion beer, but you may prefer one of the others: Black Forest, Pilsner or Weiss beers. There is also a special brew every month in addition to the four house beers. A stroll along the moonlit river bank took us back to our hotel.
I loved New Orleans at Jazz Festival time - it lived up to my expectations in every respect. The people were friendly and welcoming, and so pleased to see visitors in their city. Best of all, I finally had the opportunity to try jambalaya, crawfish pie and gumbo and yes, we did have big fun on the Bayou. Am I going back to New Orleans? You bet I am!