We took a delightful and fascinating walking tour: The New Orleans Music & Heritage Tour, created and led by Keith Abel.
Keith is full of passion and personality. He is both chef and music producer, among many talents. He led us all around the French Quarter, using landmarks to tell stories about the history of music in New Orleans, which is equivalent to the history of New Orleans. From the music of 18th and 19th century French and Spanish aristocrats, to brass bands, blues, the birth to jazz and rock and roll.
Some of the best moments were when Keith would finish a story and then say, “Let’s listen to…” He would select the excerpt he wanted on his phone, which would play on a powerful Bluetooth speaker at his hip. He would march or sashay off ahead of us, filling the street with music, getting us to sashay a bit ourselves.
Music is truly everywhere in the parts of the city that we visited. Of course there are bars and clubs. To our surprise, you can listen to whatever kind of music you like almost any time during the day, in the early evening, and/or later on.
During the day, solo musicians and bands set up in the street, and play away. From the accomplished…
…….to the aspirational.
In our short visit, we only managed to experience one formal musical performance: the Preservation All Stars. The performance hall is small — maybe 50 people — and casual. And intimate. Once the band started playing, it was like we were hanging out with them in their living room.
I had thought it would be terribly touristy, but it was just fun and fresh and lively. A great 45 minutes. Made us want to listen to more classic New Orleans jazz.
We weren’t allowed to take any photos of the musicians while they played. However this clip, with different musicians but in the same performance venue, gives you an idea of what we enjoyed:
Armstrong Park sits adjacent to the French Quarter and to the Tremé District. Dedicated to famous son of New Orleans, Louis Armstrong, it includes an imposing statue of the famous musician. But the park holds layers and layers of the racial struggles in New Orleans.
Starting in about 1817, a clearing just outside the ramparts that surrounded the original New Orleans, which is today’s French Quarter, was a sanctioned, safe and celebratory space for African and mixed-race people, enslaved and free. This clearing is now known as Congo Square, and is now part of Armstrong Park. Under the French rules, the enslaved people could go to church and did not need to work on Sundays. Congo Square was a place of release and of sharing. Since the African residents of New Orleans came from different regions of Africa, they brought together a huge range of music, instruments, dances, customs and languages. Congo Square was New Orlean’s place of sharing and mixing. And an important source of the city’s eventual influential music genres.
Up until 1917, there was a lively neighborhood near Congo Square and outside the ramparts called Storyville. This was the neighborhood of bars, dance halls and brothels. And it was a neighborhood for African Americans and all sorts of racial mixtures. While jazz was born throughout New Orleans, in the bars and clubs of Storyville, it flourished. It was here that Louis Armstrong grew up. He was a precocious, mischievous, devious boy, growing up in a difficult aggressive time. He developed as a musician in the brass bands and riverboats of New Orleans.
The federal government ordered the demolition of Storyville in 1917; the brothels were too close to Army training camps. Like many of his musical contemporaries, Armstrong moved to the next major urban center of jazz, Chicago.
Later, after Armstrong had became famous, he was able to return to New Orleans for a gig with his band. His band included musicians of various races. The New Orleans authorities refused to let him and his band play in the Municipal Auditorium next to Congo Square simply because his band was integrated. He refused to change his band and left New Orleans. This amazing city, with its challenging history, brought Louis Armstrong into the world, and then denied him. Today, almost 50 years after Armstrong’s death, the park nominally celebrates him.
Today’s park is the product of various hamstrung efforts at urban renewal. A master plan in the 1960s sought to create a gleaming civic center. Another plan aimed to create a pay-to-enter amusement park, walled off from the adjacent mostly African-American Tremé neighborhood. Only one concert hall, part of the Civic Center plan, was built. The 1920s Civic Auditorium, damaged during Katrina, sits today unusable. The concrete watercourse and strolling paths built in the 1970s, and restored after Katrina, are inhospitable and unsafe (because of all the places people can hide).
I recount all this because they reveal the complexity, as well as the richness, of this city. What an amazing place is this park. With its memory of Congo Square, full of festivity and horror. With its memory of both shunned and exuberant Louis Armstrong. With its evidence of ambitious and hamstrung city efforts. Not exactly gleaming. But not giving up, either.