Head to Frenchmen, hear the jazz play

Published on Sunday, 31 August 2014 01:35 - Written by ADAM RUSSELL arussell@tylerpaper.com

NEW ORLEANS — Spending less than 48 hours in a city shouldn’t justify a 12-hour round-trip drive, but New Orleans is made for whirlwind weekends.

The city begs to be explored. New Orleans accommodates better than most cities when it comes to activities versus just being a destination.

There are historic tours, from graveyards to riverboats to plantations. There are culinary tours for food enthusiasts. There is architecture. There are gardens. There is gambling. There is music.

The trick was limiting the scope of activities because there is something for every adult-child in the Big Easy. The short “must” list for this two-day venture was music and oysters.

Another trick to New Orleans for first-timers is to abandon any shyness among strangers. New Orleans residents have unrivaled charm.

Some residents in cities or regions that draw visitors in such consistently high volumes can begrudge the perpetual influx of strangers.

But whether it’s their inviting, Southern nature or inherited pride, ask a local for opinions on the best of what you’re looking for and you’ll likely get more than you asked for.

By day, New Orleans streets are equal parts subdued revelry, relaxation and recovery.

By night, a menagerie of performers, party professionals and amateurs, gawkers, hawkers, locals, yokels, street urchins and society swells flood the French Quarter.

For any visit, Bourbon Street, in the heart of the French Quarter, is the quintessential place to start.

If you’ve never been to New Orleans’ most famous street, you may be ready for the sights and sounds that can at times be overwhelming and unruly.

But the smell may surprise. There’s no nice way to put it — Bourbon Street stinks.

It smells like a few hundred years of spilled beer, sweaty bodies and piled trash seeped into the pavement and brick sidewalks.

Bourbon Street and the French Quarter are for tourists. There is history there to be sure, but its main attractions are for folks who think Mardi Gras is New Orleans’ only mentality.

The area is a carnal carnival and not to be missed as a matter of “been there, done that,” but the true essence of the Crescent City lies outside the tourist trap.

Frenchmen Street, the city’s Arts and Entertainment district, extends 20 blocks northwest of the French Quarter and is where locals congregate for food, drink, art and music.

Frenchmen Street bustles with activity but offers a different vibe than the Bourbon Street bazaar.

The street is lined with shadowy speakeasies, intimate restaurants and bar/restaurants with limited space, limited but locally renowned menus and surprisingly tall pours when it comes to drinks.

The Frenchmen Street Art Market is a good spot to shop for local crafts, from pillows, jewelry, ceramics and folk art. The quality and prices are right.

The highlight of New Orleans is its music and its food.

Street performers gather at various junctions all around the French Quarter day and night. Passersby may see a six-piece Dixieland jazz band on one corner, a hillbilly blues quartet on the next and a one-man band the next. They play originals and their take on others’ works for loose change and crisp bills.

For any music lover, the key is to not dismiss anyone based on any preconceived notion. There are some rough looking diamonds on the streets of New Orleans.

There are also nook-and-cranny players who frequent various bars and restaurants each day and night. If a transcendent trumpet catches the ear while passing an open door, step inside for a song or two. It might be an introduction to someone or something that alters your musical odyssey.

Most New Orleans establishments don’t charge for entry, which adds enormous value to taking a risk on any stop to listen.

On the streets or inside, giving money to musicians is never demanded, but generosity is rewarded in grand New Orleans fashion.

But no musical pilgrimage to jazz centric New Orleans is complete without a 45-minute stop at Preservation Hall.

Three times a night, 350 nights a year, the venue features some of the city’s jazz masters playing traditional New Orleans jazz in an intimate, acoustic setting.

Don’t expect Carnegie Hall.

Preservation Hall is dingy and can be crowded. There is no stage. There is no air conditioning. Much of the room has no seating.

But it has a romantic, a time-traveling quality that takes listeners to a bygone day when traditional New Orleans jazz and musicians like Louis Armstrong spread its influence around the country to Chicago and New York.

Preservation Hall is about the continuation of traditional jazz.

So much music can build an appetite.

New Orleans’ standard for food differs from most cities.

Great restaurants adorn the city. Whether it’s fresh seafood, something with a Cajun kick or a good ol’ cheeseburger, options abound. My taste buds vouch for every snack stop, po’ boy and oyster consumed.

As with the French Quarter, let your ears be the guide when it comes to music. Step in and out or sit a spell.

Rest sessions during a 48-hour pedestrian tour of New Orleans, from the levee to Frenchmen’s northern tip and all in-between are few and far between. But cabs are ever-present and on-call around the clock. Cyclists peddling single-speed cruisers around the city were an inspiration for future trips.

New Orleans casts a spell quelled only by a return trip.

It’s a place for pleasure-seekers, history hounds, food fanatics and music lovers.

On the next trip, there will be time for history, graveyards a return to Preservation Hall and more po’ boys.