New Orleans is the city that never stops making music. If you listen hard enough, you can hear the collective rumbling of suitcases carrying instruments and amplifiers rolling over craters on sidewalks all over town. And—contrary to popular belief—the religion of live, local music does not begin and end with the dual hells of Bourbon Street and Frenchmen Street. No, the faithful believe in whatever is coming out of a corner bar when its doors swing open.
Your soundtrack starts on Monday with cellist Helen Gillet’s improbable, one-woman, visceral performance in the sprawling courtyard of Bacchanal. Much, much later it resumes under a drooping, dust-covered ceiling fan inside Saturn Bar with R&B ambassadors King James & the Special Men.
There’s mid-week refuge for freaky jazzbos discovering the latest in mind-expanding progressive jazz and gorgeous, genreless noise, whether from the Progression and Instant Opus series at Uptown’s moody Gasa Gasa and St. Claude Avenue’s Hi-Ho Lounge, or at SideBar, which sits adjacent to the courthouse, the jail, and countless bail-bonds offices.
When one is weaving from destination to destination, there’s always a constellation of radio stations to accompany the trip, with on-air personalities and voices who inspire either a deep and true affection or intense rage. Either way, you’ll probably sing along to the inflections and catch phrases from local NPR affiliate hosts and hip-hop radio DJs.
When you reach an intersection, if you’re lucky, you’ll be interrupted by a neon-colored former school bus blasting bounce music for the two dozen people inside, waving at you down below. Bounce powers birthday parties (kids and adults), school dances, weddings, memorials—any event at which one might be listening to music. Also, inexplicably, TV lawyer ads.
Sundays through half the year are dedicated to social aid and pleasure clubs seizing several hours and most streets in their respective neighborhoods for second-line parades, which come with their own soundscapes, from all-star brass bands, to chicken hitting the grill, to four-wheelers zipping around in packs.
All of these exist now with a “critically endangered” conservation status hovering next to them in parentheses, threatened by a so-called “noise ordinance,” policies introduced to a rapidly changing city that is forgetting the needs and wants of the people living there. After all, New Orleans is a place where the neighborhood bar is not just a cultural throwback, but a vibrant and beloved living entity.
Even the silence here has a sound: whirring ceiling fans and white noise from window-mounted air-conditioning units, bugs, and tinnitus. But that’s the thing with living under a biodome made of Jello-thick humidity. Everything just sounds different. The city’s everyday noise creates a sense of place that’s either reassuring or discombobulating.
Weekend mornings often start with a neighbor washing his car—doors open and music blasting from an end-of-the-dial gospel station. A PA speaker mounted on citywide produce vendor Mr. Okra’s colorful pickup truck, circling the block, advertises, “I have oranges and bananas, I have mangoes.”
There’s always a 7 a.m. buzzsaw wake-up from the crew working on the house someone recently bought next door, or jackhammers in the street digging new drainage or laying new cement. Always, it seems, when one project ends another begins.
Late afternoons in the winter, high school marching bands occupy blocks around town to practice routines for the many Mardi Gras parades in which they’ll appear: a preview and reminder of the citywide Mardi Gras joy just around the corner.
Morbidly routine gunshots and sirens shatter any sense of that comfort and hope, which is slowly rebuilt, day by day, by the promise of living in New Orleans, one of the dozens of contradictions nobody questions.
But you won’t see most of this in a song-and-dance tourism ad, where daily life is reduced to a slogan-worthy cartoon rather than the complicated struggle of living in a place that often values an idea of a city more than the city it has. Musically, that vision typically goes: “birthplace of jazz,” Fats Domino, then funky Hawaiian shirts in ad campaigns with alligators playing brass instruments and wearing sunglasses at Jazz Fest.
The city’s gatekeepers aren’t getting any younger, but they’ll need to come to grips with the fading of its early musical idols and wrestle with the ambivalence towards its younger artists and the dominance of music outside their comfort zones. But people, particularly young people, haven’t given up on making music. Ask them what they’re listening to.