The music culture is one of the main reasons I decided to take Jono to New Orleans this summer.
Trumpets, tubas, and trombones lead the culture of this Louisiana town. It's where parades of brass instruments blare down the streets at the start of a new day and jazz processions commonly mark the end of a life.
From a famous, 20-year old brass band recognized by the Grammy's to simple street performing artists, I saw the Crescent City bring strutting jazz, indie funk, hip-hop attitude and old school swing together under one melodic genre that is uniquely New Orleans.
Hot 8 Brass Band
Before I even arrived in Louisiana, I had people recommending brass bands to me. They said, "You can't go to N'awlins without checking out Hot 8." They also recommended a band called Rebirth. I don't think you can go wrong with either one, but Hot 8 is the one we were lucky enough to catch.
Hot 8 are a Grammy-nominated New Orleans-based brass band and they happen to be the band featured in the HBO series Treme.
For $12, you can see them perform live at the Howlin' Wolf in the CBD most Sundays.
We were actually very lucky to catch them. I happened to be perusing weekend events in New Orleans online from our AirBnb and came across the listing for this weekly event. It never hurts to do a little research even if it's after you have already arrived at your destination!
In "the den" of the Howlin' Wolf, Hot 8 had a DJ bouncing beats around the room. Then all 11 of them slowly came out, one-by-one, warming up their instruments.
Before long they were laying down a unified rhythm so loud I'm pretty sure I'll be going deaf a few years younger. The best part was the hip hop and harmonizing mixed into their style.
At the start, they requested nobody video-record their performance. But you can check Hot 8 videos out on their website.
There was no time to record anyway since the band members implored everybody stand up and dance with no shame.
Nearly everybody was dancing! But it was hard not to when the lead saxophone player came right into the crowd to encourage it. Such fun!
You've got to appreciate street performers for doing what they love for little to no monetary benefit.
You'll find street musicians playing in New Orleans almost anywhere the tourists frequent, primarily in the French Quarter on Bourbon Street or around Jackson Square.
One band was performing at the corner of Royal Street and St. Ann.
The singer had a deep, vaudeville-style voice that was perfectly paired with the bee-bop sound of her mates on bass, clarinet, and banjo. Add in her trombone and that makes the ultimate N'awlins-style, indie street performance. Here is a sample I caught on video:
They were called Maddy and her Jazz Friends. I know this because they were encouraging people to come up and grab a free CD. Giving out free merchandise on the street is definitely a great way to earn your street performing band a mention on my blog. I would not have known their name without the giveaway!
I never did find out who the other street bands I saw around the city were. For instance, there was a group who were playing on a Monday night on Frenchman Street. This area tends to be a little more relaxed and local than the French Quarter and that atmosphere was reflected in this band's style.
They reminded me of Hot 8, only a little younger and little less organized.
All the same, they added to that steely, jazz echo that marked the auditory memory of my time in Nola.
Jazz and Swing
An overview of the jazz scene is not complete without a stop at one of the iconic Frenchman street venues. We checked out a few, like Snug Harbor and Cafe Negril, but we spent the most time at the Spotted Cat. The cover was free and the crowd became lively and diverse over the course of the night.
The band when we arrived was Dominic Grillo & the Frenchmen Street All-Stars. They had a very classic, easy listening, big city jazz vibe.
At 10pm, a 5-piece band called the Jazz Vipers took to the tiny little corner stage. Clarinet, bass, trumpet, saxophone, and guitar combined to create a old-style jazz beat that brought in a slew of dancers, naturally creating dual modes of entertainment for the night.
The music and the dancer's style reminded me of the social dancing night Frank and I found at Club Bassy in Berlin. The dancers at the Spotted Cat had a bit more swing in their step, so they were much looser and wilder but still quite similar.
The following video is from a bit earlier in the night, when the dancing was on the tamer side:
Soon after, the music got louder and faster and as the booze flowed more freely, the dancers did, too. A group of girls visiting from Mexico were standing next to us one second and the next they were literally swept off their feet into a frenzy of swing.
When I asked one of the dancers whether this was an organized thing or not, he said no. They all know each other from around the city but this was as organic as it might have happened back in the 20s or 30s.
That's exactly the natural cultural experience I like to have when I travel.
The Music Overall
You can certainly find a country music group, metal era tribute band, or top 40 karaoke night sprinkled around the Crescent City. But to experience the true roots of New Orleans music, you have to check out something on the brassier side.
Whether it was famous second line band like Hot 8, a street performance, or a gig on Frenchman street, I certainly was not disappointed with the jazz beat of New Orleans!