A dark night in New Orleans
Inside the bar, it’s dark, and from what I can make out, the colours on the walls are muted too, burnt reds merging into blackened walnut. It’s packed to capacity, but people aren’t here for the beer, although there’s plenty of that going down, in long-necked American bottles. What they’ve come for is pulsing in the air around us, making the walls shake and generating an instant buzz as we open the door. This is New Orleans and the beat is jazz.
Jazz was born here. Slaves were allowed to meet up in Congo Square, now at the edge of the Louis Armstrong Park. They danced to drum beats and whatever other instruments they had until a genre was born. The Big Easy went on to produce such legends as Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton.
You can still find more traditional jazz in places like Preservation Hall or the Palm Court Cafe. But Jazz has also grown up in New Orleans and the riffs of modern jazz, sometimes morphed with R’n’B or funk, swirl throughout the town.
We wander in and out of bars, moving from the French Quarter to The Faubourg-Marigny area, hearing a set here, a single saxophone piece there. We sit on a beautiful balcony of black filigree to hear a busker belt out some phenomenal music, and we crowd into bars so densely packed you can barely move to hear a full jazz band.
On the way, we discover the locals pronounce the place ‘Norleens’ and we feel like the tourists we are. It’s possible to stay out all night; many bars are open 24 hours. Everything gets a little hazy after 3 a.m.
There’s a reason vampire writer Anne Rice set her novels and indeed chose to live in New Orleans until a few years ago. The slave trade delivered its miserable human cargo here and with them came voodoo.
The town was ripe to embrace it, a harbour full of cruelty, opportunity, riches, poverty and an undertow of permissiveness. The gothic French Quarter is beautifully preserved and retains that flavour of dark, brooding magic in its creaking shutters, wrought ironwork and shadowy corners.
The dark arts still retain some power in New Orleans. Moving in search of different sounds, we pass a carved doorway, the heavy velvet curtain lifted to one side. A woman beckons us in. The interior is dedicated to black magic and a mummified cat glares down from a stand.
If you need a Ouija board, a pack of tarot cards or a carved familiar complete with goat horns and a leather skirt, you can stock up here. The owner’s bangles clatter as she shows us around; pointing a sun-wrinkled finger, she offers to tell my future.
But her two-inch-long scarlet nails scratch as she turns over my palm and I back away, out of the dim lighting and into the sharp air to follow the strains of music back to the 300 bars on Bourbon Street.
The food is as good as the music here and there’s a strong Creole and Cajun influence. The Creoles brought with them the flavours of France, Spain and Africa, concocting stews like the famous gumbo, thickened with okra.
The Cajuns came from Nova Scotia and their cooking is all about spice. In the courtyard of a friendly bistro, we go all out on the local fare, eating jambalaya (a spicy rice dish) and po’boys (sandwiches usually of gravy and beef, intended originally, as the name suggests, for the poor).
It’s only right to follow up with doughnuts, known here by the French name beignets. These are not the woeful stodgy rings laden with icing of Dunkin’ Donuts fame, oh no.
The outside is so crisp that the sugar jumps off when you bite; the inside is perfectly cooked dough; the centre is an intense burst of fresh, tangy apple sauce. We drink the local chicory coffee to take the edge off the sweetness.
I see New Orleans only in the dark. We arrive late and leave early the next morning and I miss all of the daytime sights. But I find a city immersed in music, gorging on some of the most interesting food in the US, luring newcomers into dark little shops for a dabble with the devil.
Even the buildings look flamboyant at night in a haze of mist, the black iron of the balconies stark against the deep colours of the walls. I see the city at its best, as it really is, on a dark night with no moon.