Live, from New Orleans

Amid young bands playing at Frenchmen Street, a legendary street clarinetist, and along the Mississippi River, jazz becomes a way of seeing the city.  
The Spotted Cat in Faubourg Marigny is a must-visit. The club often hosts big-ticket performers such as Meschiya Lake and the New Orleans Cottonmouth Kings. Photo by: Cyrus McCrimmon/Contributor/Denver Post/Getty Images
The Spotted Cat in Faubourg Marigny is a must-visit. The club often hosts big-ticket performers such as Meschiya Lake and the New Orleans Cottonmouth Kings. Photo by: Cyrus McCrimmon/Contributor/Denver Post/Getty Images

I’m still a stranger to Mumbai that Holi, when I chase the sunset to an unmarked fort. And in the shadow of the Bandra-Worli Sea Link, I find music that takes me back two years and across oceans to New Orleans. I’m exploring the parapet of a 17th-century British fort when I first catch the strains of Master Simon’s saxophone. As I follow it down to a boatshed that is filled with the instruments of Koliwada’s village brass band, Master Simon, his son and grandson, greet me with their music and disposable chai cups. The cups are brimming with McDowell’s rum. It is here, singing, dancing, and sharing earphones with Master Simon, that I remember the joy of finding the Spotted Cat Music Club on Frenchmen Street. Live bands and swing dancing; another world in what looks like any other street of bars. The oddities of New Orleans—the voodoo and ghost stories, the French balconies, the steamers up the Mississippi, slave tales and Mardi Gras lore—come together to make you tap your feet, and dance your late-night loves.

*****

French Quarter is the heart of New Orleans’ jazz scene. Photo by: GTS Productions/ Shutterstock

French Quarter is the heart of New Orleans’ jazz scene. Photo by: GTS Productions/ Shutterstock

I’m in New Orleans in 2013, at the start of a month-long backpacking trip. The saxophone is the Pied Piper’s flute that draws me there. And it’s at the Spotted Cat, in a quiet corner of the heritage area, that I fall in love with jazz. The band plays on a stage next to a window, overlooking the street. The saxophone has a visceral sound—speaking like a human voice, coaxing me past the dissonance I feel with English lyrics, into the heart of song.

There’s a girl in a flowing white dress, red camellia in dark curly hair, parting the crowd with her tango. Jack and Hanna, whom I meet at the hostel, break into swing dance. Hanna’s friend, Tee and I awkward-dance, her goofy faces making me swoon. The four of us go back four nights in a row, the musicians and dancers spilling onto the street with beers and smokes, everyone chatting everyone else up.

Back in my Worli room, I use Google Street View to trace my old paths through New Orleans’ French Quarter. I find my Bermuda triangle—the site of many wrong turns in search of The Spotted Cat, and that spot where a clarinetist has been playing for 30 years. And these memories blend with images from hours before: Master Simon, his face coloured purple, blood red eyes, dark fingers jabbing brass keys, his body green and swaying, with those long sax solos where rhythm takes him places. Something clicks. Jazz is a way of seeing, of thinking about travel, especially for someone from the Global South visiting places whose grandeur might oppress.

What drew me to New Orleans was a need to say goodbye to the U.S. after four years of study, and a desire to find in stories of black resistance a way to place myself in relation to America, as a minority, as a privileged immigrant who can turn tourist, and a stranger from elsewhere. I travel the loops of these questions, like a musician with a tune stuck in his head, improvising as I meet others.

*****

Jack, the aspiring Blues singer, is the one who leads us off the kitschy strip of bars on Bourbon Street. We go to a quiet neighbourhood on the edge of Faubourg Marigny, following his memory from many years back. And among its jazz clubs with exotic names—Café Negril, Blue Nile, Snug Harbour, The Maison—I first spot The Spotted Cat. On Frenchmen Street, jazz needs no explaining. It flows through bodies, reminding you why it sizzled and stretched sexual mores.

Clubs like The Maison (right) on Frenchmen Street pulse with swing bands and dancers; The city is famous for Mardi Gras, a festival marked by wild parties and carousers (left) in costumes. Photos by: Jcarillet/istock (woman), Franz Marc Frei/LOOK-foto/LOOK/Getty images (man)

Clubs like The Maison (right) on Frenchmen Street pulse with swing bands and dancers; The city is famous for Mardi Gras, a festival marked by wild parties and carousers (left) in costumes. Photos by: Jcarillet/istock (woman), Franz Marc Frei/LOOK-foto/LOOK/Getty images (man)

You pop in and out of clubs, getting a beer, and dropping what you can into hats passed around after gigs. Young bands that pay homage to the roots of jazz bring a sense of possibilities—of glitzy stages in New York and Chicago waiting around the corner. There is no trace in their music of elevator lobbies and malls, of cafés and movies that are nostalgic for a more elegant past. But it is in the Spotted Cat—its wood floors scratched by dancing heels, soaked in beers spilt over laughs, between walls echoing the most beautiful late night song every night for years on end—that jazz becomes my own.

*****

It’s not long after I run into Master Simon in Mumbai that Beyoncé’s “Formation” music video is released. I watch it on loop. The video is full of those run-down New Orleans blocks I’d first seen without the music that lets you into their pain. I pass those shotgun houses and creole cottages on the bus from the airport into downtown. I chat with a middle-aged man with two kids, returning alone after 10 years. As he points out landmarks from his childhood, he remarks on others that have gone missing. And slowly goes quiet. There was first the devastation of hurricane and then the mortgage foreclosures.

*****

India House, the hostel, is my first taste of the motley mix that laid-back New Orleans offers tourists. Everyone here is passing through. I meet my fellow explorers here—Jack, Hanna, Pete, and Tee, among others. Jack is the blue-eyed chisel-jawed Californian you’d know from your teenage romance, a vegan farm boy who went to Buenos Aires to learn the cobblers’ trade, but learnt to play guitar instead. He is looking for bars where he can sing the blues. Pete is from Glasgow, travelling the East Coast, learning the nuances of jazz. Hanna and Tee are on a Lonely Planet loop. There are a brother and sister, covered in piercings and ink, riding Harleys across the U.S.

There is historic art and architecture in Royal Street and Bourbon Street, jostling for attention with splashy antique stores, voodoo artists (left) and neon-lit bars (right). Photos by: Marla Holden/age fotostock/dinodia photo library (left), Jim West/age fotostock/dinodia photo library (right)

There is historic art and architecture in Royal Street and Bourbon Street, jostling for attention with splashy antique stores, voodoo artists (left) and neon-lit bars (right). Photos by: Marla Holden/age fotostock/dinodia photo library (left), Jim West/age fotostock/dinodia photo library (right)

While the nights are reserved for jazz and dance, the days help me explore the French Quarter, the square mile of heritage architecture with its grid of streets leading down to the Mississippi. There are two main arteries from the Canal Street tram stop as you walk toward the historic town centre—Royal Street and Bourbon Street. Royal Street is where I catch Yes Ma’am, the country and blues band, performing with washboards and banjoes in the middle of the street one afternoon, and later the same evening, I find Doreen Ketchens with her band. She has played at jazz festivals, taught courses, performed before four U.S. presidents, but every week, she can be found standing at her New Orleans street corner with a changing group of musicians.

Thanks to Tee and Hanna, I find the yummy parts of the French Quarter—crawfish étouffées with light gravy served over rice; its close cousin, the gumbo stew; the shrimp po’boy sandwiches; donut-like beignets from Café Du Monde with chicory coffee; the simple but delicious rice and beans cooked with ham (a Louis Armstrong favourite).

The food hunt is an excuse to see every corner of the district. Every street has its share of old eateries—Mother’s Restaurant, Central Grocery, Johnny’s po’boys—along with boutique hotels and restaurants riding on the beauty of cast iron balconies. There are also art galleries, Cajun spice stores, voodoo trinket stores, and gift shops. Closer to the river, the streets converge on a French Cathedral with elegant spires, and an imposing Spanish courthouse (Cabildo), both overlooking the manicured green of Jackson Square—with its statue of Andrew Jackson, the anti-abolitionist president who authorised the removal of Native Americans from the South.

Étouffées, made of shrimp or crawfish, are a highlight of Creole cuisine. Photo by: Otokimus/istock

Étouffées, made of shrimp or crawfish, are a highlight of Creole cuisine. Photo by: Otokimus/istock

New Orleans is prone to caricaturing its troubled history for consumption. Cajun dinners are served on steamboats up the Mississippi. You can ride a horse carriage on cobbled lanes lined with flowering French balconies. Haunted houses tell stories of brothel patrons with exotic tastes. A history of slave ships is hinted on in the sale of African voodoo.

Then there are the Mardi Gras floats and festivities that reference French traditions while banking on day-drinking college students on Bourbon Street, and bachelor’s parties in strip clubs. And off the French balconies, men throw bead necklaces, and partying women flash them in turn.

To wander the French Quarter is to be complicit in history as an excuse to titillate. And it is the noise of history thus touted that makes jazz in the quiet corners all that more precious.

Wondering about French Quarter’s heritage, I find a sliver of history that connects jazzy New Orleans to Master Simon’s Mumbai—a moment in the 1860s when New Orleans’ decline as global cotton capital made for the rise of Bombay. New Orleans, once the centre of the booming Southern economy, suffered naval blockades during the American Civil War. Meanwhile, enterprising Bombay cotton mill owners expanded production to fill the gap in exports to Europe, birthing the mill compounds that have recently been redeveloped into office towers and microbreweries in Master Simon’s Worli backyard. The end of slavery sealed New Orleans’ fate as a more regional economic hub, but the 19th-century cosmopolitan glory of the old cotton capital, together with its vices, continued to draw willing tourists. It also paved the way for the birth of jazz that takes me back from New Orleans to Mumbai and back again across time.

*****

Royal Street and Bourbon Street make up the teeming town centre of New Orleans. Photo by: Atlantide Photo travel/Corbis Documentary/Getty images

Royal Street and Bourbon Street make up the teeming town centre of New Orleans. Photo by: Atlantide Photo travel/Corbis Documentary/Getty images

Pete is the one who convinces me to pay $30 to watch Jason Marsalis on the drums at Preservation Hall. He feels I should listen to “real jazz”, not the dance-able tunes on Frenchmen pitched at tourists “who don’t know better.” Preservation Hall was started in the mid-’60s with an aim to retain New Orleans’ jazz heritage in the face of rock ‘n’ roll. Now the Marsalis brothers of New Orleans, known for guiding jazz back to its roots, are at the centre of this effort.

That day, we wait in line outside Preservation Hall, not too far from where Doreen Ketchens performs. Inside the small old hall with wood floors and benches, pillars and dark oil canvases that all quiver with music, time slows. Floating on music, there is a moment I turn to catch the awe on Pete’s face. It is here that Pete meets Jason Marsalis who lets him onto the New Orleans jazz scene.

One night in New Orleans, we hunt for late-night eats. Stuffed with shrimp po’boys and giddy with joy, we stumble back to the boardwalk next to the Mississippi, finding a spot with a breeze on steps that lead down the levee to the edge of dark water. Jack tries to chat with a man carving graffiti into the wood pilings at the bottom. And this is how we meet Mr. PB&J, who got his name when handing out peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in the months after Hurricane Katrina. He comes here once a month to mark the day the river breached the levee and took his brother. Mr. PB&J and his brother had grown up a few hundred miles north. The brother moved to New Orleans to play jazz. He moved to New York and California to work as a music producer. They lost touch. When Mr. PB&J arrived in the aftermath of Katrina, he had lost his family to divorce and his brother to the hurricane. He remembered the music and stayed.

To experience the roots of New Orleans’ jazz tradition, there’s no better venue than Preservation Hall. Photo by: John Elk/Lonely Planet Images/getty images

To experience the roots of New Orleans’ jazz tradition, there’s no better venue than Preservation Hall. Photo by: John Elk/Lonely Planet Images/getty images

I meet Abe from Cameron in the slump after Hanna and Tee leave for Chicago and play guide to him on Frenchmen Street. Abe works for the World Bank. He has a big map of the U.S. in his car with a necklace of towns marked out. He too is on a minor secular pilgrimage. He makes me think about why we travel, how the American South reminds us of places we both come from—the dysfunctional-ness and the warmth. The oddness of finding patches of the developing world within the U.S. How the history of the Civil Rights Movement inspires—the music so close to the heart of the resistance: you cannot begin to fight without giving voice to your pain.

Jazz has its roots in bands that performed at funerals, and later in bars and brothels around New Orleans, at a time when few employers hired freed black men. Jazz started at the confluence of European instruments with Western African rhythms, the pain of the powerless in the language of the master—the pain slowly reshaping the language. It is not lost on me that a leading jazz pianist of our time is a South Asian immigrant—Vijay Iyer.

*****

After every few songs, Master Simon joins me with a drink, looking out toward the lights of Bandra-Worli Sea Link. He talks about starting the village brass band, about the grand Mumbai weddings he has attended, and the film stars who were there. And all the while, my mind is flooded with memories of New Orleans. I play on my phone a YouTube clip of “The Crave” by Jelly Roll Morton—one of the fathers of jazz from New Orleans. And he listens, before waving it away. He then gets up to play something different.

New Orleans is also home to the offbeat—fortune tellers, psychics and street magicians. Photo by: Atlantide Phototravel/Corbis Documentary/Getty Images

New Orleans is also home to the offbeat—fortune tellers, psychics and street magicians. Photo by: Atlantide Phototravel/Corbis Documentary/Getty Images

It’s slow, deep and sad, and when he senses I do not know what he is referencing, he sings for me the 1970s Marathi tune he grew up with.

In that moment I see how that other history of jazz is irrelevant, how for Master Simon (and the men in New Orleans), jazz starts right here (and there) with the songs they grew up with. What they do is take the saxophone and make it their own.

  • Gautam Joseph was in Egypt during the Arab Spring, and backpacked across Western China with a Mandarin phrase book. He has worked in India, and is now a post-graduate student of writing in Singapore.

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