new orleans was always intriguing to me. so close to where i grew up in oklahoma, but seemingly miles away in every other sense: the food, the jazz, the slight sense of grit and corruption that lies just beneath the surface of its varied architecture. i’ve known people who have moved to new orleans for school and then never left. they say it gets in you and you can’t leave, even if you try. so i was excited to (finally) explore the town and understand this spirit of new orleans.
we traveled with friends and found the most amazingly quintessential new orleans house on airbnb in the heart of frenchmen street, just across the street from washington square park. note: do not stay in the french quarter. rather, stay here, on frenchmen, amongst the jazz bars and the outdoor art market, and only a short walk away from the quarter (if you must, if only for cafe du monde beignets).
the jazz bars on frenchmen were my favorite part of new orleans. walking up frenchmen, loud and urgent jazz rushes from inside the clubs and greets you, demanding you step in for a while. should you accept, you’ll most likely find packed spaces, locals sipping abita beer, and potentially a bachelorette party or two. step into the spotted cat music club, a small bar recommended by new york times’ 36 hours, where i spent the good part of an hour enthralled by the couples who charged in and started swing dancing with such purpose that it was both thrilling and catatonic.
some bars require reservations for seats (such as snug harbor jazz bistro), while others pull you in spontaneously as you walk by. one night, we walked past maison when we heard a mix of hip hop and jazz coming from inside. it was different and immediately piqued my interest, and i couldn’t help but dance along. we walked in to find a group of around eight guys, all young, that switched between rapping and raucous playing of their instruments (think: kanye’s “all of the lights,” though younger and more raw). at one point, one member left the club to go outside for a smoke break. he couldn’t resist the music, though, and started playing his trombone from the street in the middle of pedestrians walking by. the music has a way of taking hold of you like that and not letting go.
if the music at a particular place wasn’t doing it for us, we’d move on; there are too many bars offering different types of music that you should never settle for mediocrity. our favorite spot one night would be boring the next. keep walking, and you’ll find what you’re after. some of my favorite spots (all within walking distance) were dba, spotted cat, and maison. i also heard that blue nile was fantastic, though we never stepped inside.
each night, we’d walk up frenchmen, listen to jazz, dance along, drink, and cheer for more. between sets we’d switch locations or stroll through the outdoor art market just next door (check out brett henderson’s booth for some really cool photos overlaid with maps of new orleans).
walking back to the house post-jazz, we’d buy pizza at the pop-up pizza pirate (it’s literally in the shape of a pirate ship) and sit on our balcony overlooking washington square park listening to the lingering jazz and conversations of late-night walkers pass by. this was new orleans by night, the time to see the city for what it is. now that i’ve seen its spirit, i’m a believer.