New Orleans, land of dreams

John & Susan Simpson
Wed 6 Jul 2022 21:43
'New Orleans, land of dreams.  You’ll never know how nice it seems or just how much it really means….’ (from the Basin Street Blues by W.C. Handy)

John’s Father was a clergyman, the Reverend Canon AC Simpson.  He was a parish priest and Rural Dean in the Lincolnshire Wolds, and later a Canon of Lincoln Cathedral.  He was also very fond of Traditional Jazz in the New Orleans style.  Most Saturday evenings he would head over to Louth (30 miles east of Lincoln) to go to the Jazz Club and hear the Southwold Jazz Band play the old favourites.  When it came to fundraising for the church he had the brilliant idea to have the Southwold Jazz Band play jazz spirituals in the church and then lead a New Orleans style street parade along the village lanes of his Lincolnshire parish, ending at the big room attached to the rectory where he lived. This came to be an annual event and proved to be so popular that concerts in later years were held in a large barn to fit more punters in and even featured on 'Look North’ presented by the then famous Roy Castle!  The event attracted musicians from New Orleans to make the journey to deepest, darkest Lincolnshire to star as feature artists.  I was lucky enough to be there on one of the first times I went home from University with John to stay with his parents.  John’s Mum and I spent all day making huge vats of Red Beans and Rice, stirring the pork and kidney bean mixture with a dinghy oar as it cooked in a metal bath tub over a gas ring.  This was catering on an industrial scale for 250+ guests.  

Growing up in a household full of Trad Jazz it’s unsurprising that John also grew to love the music.  He’s much more at home improvising jazz on his trumpet that he is playing in a classical style.  He played in the Barkwith Jazz parade many times as a teenager and formed the Arfa Ate Jazz Band when we were at Durham University.  Arfa Ate was much in demand to play at College social evenings and balls.  After we left Durham, he formed other bands, the infamous Milton Keynes Feetwarmers which after several years gave way to the much improved Louisiana Jazz Band and for years he juggled semi-professional gigs alongside his day job.

So New Orleans has featured in our history for a long time and visiting the city really did feel like visiting the land of dreams.  All the names we knew from songs and stories were there: Bourbon Street, Basin Street, Rampart Street, Preservation Hall.  We wished John’s Dad could have known that we were there.  Quite what he would have made of New Orleans I don’t know.  He’d probably have found it too hot and smelly for a start!  Bourbon Street was like Blackpool on steroids - a cacophony of noise in which street vendors vied with tarot card readers, snake charmers, children drumming on upturned plastic tubs, restaurant and bar owners for our attention.  Troupes of hen night parties staggered from bar to bar bearing huge luminous penis shaped plastic bottle filled with cocktails.  Trad Jazz was no longer the soundtrack for most venues but each bar/restaurant had live music or DJ and with all windows being open to the hot night air, the volume of the competing screaming guitars and drum beats was quite incredible.

At the quieter end of Bourbon Street we found Fritzl’s European Jazz Bar and we enjoyed several evenings there.  Live Trad Jazz is played every day from noon until the early hours.  

A little further afield, but still in the French Quarter, was Frenchmen Street and the Spotted Cat Jazz Club.  There we heard a superb Gypsy Jazz quartet: violin, cello, double bass and a guitarist.  We were the only two listening in the club on a Tuesday lunchtime but these four brilliant young musicians just played for the sheer love of it and were absolutely stunning.

John’s Father would have been delighted that we visited Preservation Hall, a famous venue where live Trad Jazz has been played since the 1960’s.  The building itself dates from 1817 and has changed little since that time.  Preservation Hall now runs as a foundation supporting and encouraging young musicians to play Trad Jazz.  By an amazing coincidence we were able to hear the trumpet player Wendell Brunious lead the Preservation Hall Jazz Band.  The last time John heard Wendell play was when Wendell was one of the feature artists at the Barkwith Jazz back in the 1980’s.  We secured front row seats and managed to get to speak to Wendell at the end.  Incredibly, he remembered coming to East Barkwith and recalled the names of some of the musicians in the Southwold Jazz Band.  He seemed genuinely delighted to reconnect.

Amongst other things, we also took a Mississippi River Boat lunch trip.  There was a live Trad Jazz trio featuring the clarinettist we’d heard in the band at Fritzl’s.  Another evening we went to the Mahogany Hall Jazz Club and the band there was led by the trumpet player from the Fritzl’s band, so it seemed that there was a very limited number of Trad Jazz players around.  John would have liked to play his trumpet whilst he was in New Orleans but, although we enquired several times, it never seemed to be the right time for him to sit in with a band - maybe because there are so few opportunities nowadays.

We took a city bus tour and had a look at the areas devastated by Hurricane Katrina.  Whilst much of it has been rebuilt now (Katrina was in October 2005) the stories of the 9-11 foot wall of water hitting the city were sobering.  Everyone seemed to have a Katrina story and the Museum of New Orleans Jazz featured a number of exhibits lifted directly from the houses of musicians after the floods.  Fats Domino’s piano was displayed tipped over on its three remaining legs, just as it had been found.
We rode on the Trolley Bus, the oldest continuously operating streetcar line in the world - in operation since 1835.  The noise and the smell of the cars was reminiscent of the older London Tube trains and it was a lovely way to see the older parts of the city.

We sampled the various delicacies that New Orleans cuisine has to offer, including red beans and rice!  We loved the Beignets (fresh doughnut-like pastries dusted with icing sugar) and John thought the char-grilled oysters were delicious.  I had fried alligator salad but was a bit disappointed - it might as well have been Kentucky Fried Chicken!
We loved New Orleans.  It was a great experience and we were glad to have been there at long last.  We picked up a hire car at the airport and prepared to drive North along the Mississippi Delta and the Mississippi Blues trail.