Jazz Razzmatazz

A potpourri of art, culture and history -- New Orleans is a charming experience

By: George Abry

NEW ORLEANS To Louis Armstrong, jazz was such that "when you got to ask what it is, you never get to know."

“If you gotta define it baby, it ain't jazz.”

The New Orleans jazz great was legendary, not just for his trumpet blasts which today befuddle and elude imitators but for the inherent enigma that he saw in the spontaneous music he made, as well in his hometown, the “Cradle of Jazz.”

Armstrong's witticisms aside, the exotic potpourri of sights, sounds, smells and extravagance the essence of New Orleans isn’t easy to deconstruct. Its illustrious history, architecture and culture don’t fit in neat little categories or subheadings.

Yet, generations of writers, artists, poets, musicians, bohemians and lost souls have sought solace in the city’s French Quarter, seduced by its sumptuous ambience and mystery.

Edgar Degas, John James Audubon, William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams and Walt Whitman readily come to mind. Poet and NPR commentator Andrei Codrescu once wrote: “If New Orleans went into the memorial plaque business for all the writers who ever lived here, they would have to brass-plate the whole town.”

The French Quarter is the historic centerpiece of New Orleans, and the site of its remarkable genesis.

Formally known as the Vieux Carre, and locally as the Quarter, it was here that French Canadian explorer Bienville claimed the area for France in 1718. It was here that transfer papers for the greatest real estate bargain in history the Louisiana Purchase were signed in 1803, nearly doubling the size of the United States.

At one time or another, the flags of France, Spain and the United States have flown over what is today Jackson Square, the French Quarter’s symbolic and physical focal point.

Distilled to its properties, New Orleans is nothing more than an expression of its culture, the sum of diverse, contradictory ele-ments, an unusual tapestry woven and rewoven for nearly 300 years by colonial French, Spanish and English residents.

It must be remembered that New Orleans is a port city. As such, the Mississippi River’s vast currents have transported international influences, and imbued the city's local vernacular.

Directions in New Orleans are “upriver” or “downriver” or “away from the river.” An address might be on the “riverside.”

The Mississippi River’s legacy is a melting pot of distinctive old-world traditions.

Spanish, French, African, English, German and Caribbean culinary and building styles have crossed paths, intermingled and re-emerged in flavors adapted to the region’s climate and culture. These traditions in turn were transformed by American trends. The end result has been a cultural evolution that is naturally New Orleans, a homegrown byproduct that is Creole.

The culinary history of New Orleans is old. Influenced principally by the French and Spanish, it is Creole cooking. The French supplemented their own fine cuisine with Louisiana’s abundance herbs, seafood, game, vegetables and fruits. The Spanish added some zest; African slaves threw in their knowledge and use of herbs.

The finished product equals pungent scents from outdoor cafes wafting through humid cobblestone streets. The smell of gumbos, crayfish bisque, court-bouillons, red beans and rice, jambalaya, shrimp Creole, blackened fish from surrounding lakes and the Gulf of Mexico, stuffed quail, duck confit, on and on ...

Coupled with jazz and Creole cooking, architecture is one of New Orleans’ premier signatures.

In the Quarter, colorful sunlit stucco facades, flush with the sidewalk, roast in the Delta sun.

Early 19th century cottages and rowhouses form an endless wall of casement doors, transoms and arches, all in brilliant relief to the intricate, flowing wrought iron detail of second- and third-story balconies and galleries.

The cityscape of old New Orleans is more European in charm and character than Southern.

The same confluence of ideas, values, social conditions and physical realities that brought forth the French Quarter are dis-played in the myriad neighborhoods that surround it. Several of them are known as Faubourgs (French for suburbs), geographical and cultural enclaves that ab-sorbed boatloads of immigrants entering the Port of New Orleans, through the 18th and 19th centuries.

Faubourg Treme, for example, developed in the late 1700s as a stronghold for prominent free people of color many of the women were wealthy landowners. Louisiana, and Treme specifically, had more free blacks than any Deep South state before the Civil War.

Today Treme’s streets are lined with early 19th century Creole cottages and double-galleried antebellum mansions. Treme’s St. Augustine Catholic Church, built in 1842, remains the spiritual epicenter of New Orleans’ black heritage; jazz funerals and second line parades routinely exit the church.

Singular among New Orleans neighborhoods, one synonymous with antebellum opulence, is the world-renowned Garden District.

Laid out in the 1830s and settled by wealthy Americans in the 1840s, the area is flush with Queen Anne Victorian homes, picturesque villas, as well as New Orleans’ trademark Greek Revival mansions. Flaming red crepe myrtles, oaks and wisteria are clustered around classical facades and cast iron to create the harmony that produced the neighborhood’s name.

Even New Orleans cemeteries known as “cities of the dead” mirror many specific features of New Orleans’ historic neighborhoods. Elements of Greek and Egyptian revival, Gothic, Italianate and Baroque architectural styles adorn the above-ground tombs. In some cases, wrought- and cast-iron fences surround the structures as if they were private estates. Many tomb designs are the work of master architects.

It’s easy to get caught up in the mystique of New Orleans and forget that people live and work in areas such as the French Quarter, a characteristic that sets the city far apart from outdoor museum villages. Colonial Williamsburg, for example, offers a reproduction of a bygone era, but no one comes home to its buildings at night.

New Orleans, on the other hand, is home to a partying populace that honors its living as vigorously as its dead. Many of the city’s customs make no sense to outsiders, but they still come from around the world to revel in its decadence.

Its annual freewheeling bacchanalia, Mardi Gras, draws hundreds of thousands of thrill seekers each year. And the annual Jazz & Heritage Festival is a must for serious musicians and music lovers.

New Orleans also is deeply spiritual; its residents have a missionary devotion to the customs and traditions that have shaped the region for three centuries. Each November devoted residents flock to cemeteries citywide, delivering yellow chrysan-themums to family tombs to mark the Roman Catholic feast of All Saints’ Day. In a daylong memorial celebration that entails lavish food and drink, family members and volunteers whitewash, scrub and clean tombs to honor the departed.

Meantime, life goes on in the Crescent City, like some unrehearsed jazz riff, blowing in off the river, lapping to the rise and fall of the tides that spawned it ill-defined, beholden to no one.