By John Bordsen
RISMEDIA, Nov. 28, 2008-(MCT)-Stroll Bourbon Street morning, noon and especially night, and you’re sure to see the unusual. But aside from one or two clubs and the occasional Dixieland parade, the music you’ll hear is generic.
The most famous street in the French Quarter is so geared to tourists that all you’re guaranteed is place after place where “Brown-Eyed Girl” is played well, poorly or so-so.
Instead, head over to Faubourg Marigny (“mare-a-nay”), the neighborhood just to the east, where off-work musicians and locals convene to hear the cultural gumbo of the Big Easy-jazz, blues, zydeco, klezmer and more. Its hub, Frenchmen Street, is neither as crowded nor as loony as Bourbon. But I did see a pair of howling-drunk young drifters at Frenchmen and Chartres asking passersby for money: They said they were honeymooning right there, inside an abandoned Lucky Dog wiener pushcart.
This is New Orleans, after all.
The French Quarter trickles out to the east into quiet houses and warehouses. Cross Esplanade Avenue and you nudge into Marigny, a warren of curb-close two-story bungalows and an occasional dilapidated mansion. The area was developed in the early 1800s by a Creole gambler-politician named de Marigny and settled by aristocrats’ black mistresses and their mixed-blood offspring. The neighborhood remains naturally integrated. Local artists, priced out of the French Quarter, entered the mix in recent years.
The businesses and neighborhood are tightly bonded. A half-dozen proprietors told me this spring their establishments were sustained by close-by customers before the tourists started trickling in. But nobody wants to import the Quarter’s glitz and headaches.
Frenchmen Street is a funky mix of low-slung supply stores, boutiques, maybe 10 restaurants or coffeehouses and almost as many music rooms. The whole street extends 3 ½ miles due north, almost to Lake Pontchartrain, but you’ll want to visit the close-in six or so blocks between Decatur and Rampart.
Bring your morning coffee and pastry to Washington Square, a one-block park where some start their day with arm-swooping tai-chi exercises. There are kids at play, and Tulane film students might be shooting a project. It’s tranquil before noon, and you can hear the boat whistles four blocks south, at the city’s port.
It comes to life when the shops open after 10 a.m. or so. Head to FAB Arts & Books at Frenchmen and Chartres, when proprietor Otis Fennell hauls out his life-size mannequin to be his sidewalk sentinel. It’s a small operation brimming with books and prints, many used/rare, many directly tied to the city or aimed at its gay community. Fennell is often found outside on the corner visiting with friends who pass by.
People-watching is prime. Florida-born Shannon Smith comes by on her way to work at the 13 Monahan bistro. Her long hair is dyed Day-Glo red. Here comes All Amzie, a painter whose work is shown in the Quarter. He is dressed in black from top hat to sneakers, and with his white beard and green-skull sunglasses, he looks like a blend of Abe Lincoln and Jerry Garcia.
Across Frenchmen, a pair of street musicians starts to play at the currently unoccupied Lucky Dog cart. Timothy Apuzzi is from Washington State. Nathan LeVelley is from New Orleans. They met just today and decided to combine washboard and tenor guitar on the spot-the pushcart does have “Hot Art” painted on its side.
Time for lunch. Cross Chartres from the FAB bookstore to The Praline Connection, where the menu is largely local specialties. It’s a spacious, large-window cafe with great and filling fare. An enormous bowl of jambalaya and an iced tea weigh in at $15.
Then stroll Marigny to see what great eating spots you’ll want to hit later, and to get a handle on what bands will play after sunset. Phone poles and blank walls are stapled to the max with fliers.
And look at the houses, some derelict but others as elaborately restored and painted as anything you’d find in San Francisco.
In early afternoon, the clubs and taverns open their doors to let in fresh air and exhale music from sound systems. What comes from the Spotted Cat on Frenchmen is especially sublime-jazz from the 1920s through ’40s.
There’s live music-lots of it-when the sun slides and dinner’s done on Frenchmen. If word-of-mouth or phone-pole posters haven’t given you a clue, grab a copy of Off Beat, a free and widely available slick-paper monthly about the New Orleans music scene. Or just walk the pavement, keeping an ear toward opened doorways. You don’t have far to trod.
In one evening, I caught an earful at the following six places-all within two blocks. Cover charge is usually $5.
Snug Harbor, 626 Frenchmen, is Marigny’s upscale establishment. This is the home base for famed jazz pianist (and patriarch) Ellis Marsalis (cover: $20). You better have made a reservation (504-949-0696; www.snugjazz.com). The menu’s focus is seafood and steak ($17-$30 entrees).
Ray’s Boom Boom Room, 508 Frenchmen, is a narrow, long and stripped-down place with a small stage at the door. At 6:30 p.m., there was no cover to hear a very good electric blues duo called Junkyard Dog. Coming by an hour hater, there was a cover charge to hear the same musicians, now augmented with another sideman and with a woman singing “Proud Mary” in a blistering Tina Turner style. The acoustics and lighting weren’t great, but you could see the performers up close. At 10, a Hispanic combo replaced them, playing from a stage way in the back.
d.b.a., 618 Frenchmen (504-942-3731; www.dbabars.com/dbano.com), is a dark, panel-lined place with tables near the door and standing room toward the back, where the band plays. On the low stage was vocalist Ingrid Lucia and her Neutrinos band offering jazz with a Dixieland touch for modern listeners. Catch her version of the Kinks’ “Sunny Afternoon.” The don’t-miss band Jazz Club of New Orleans plays Django Reinhardt/Stephan Grappeli swing here now and again.
The Blue Nile, 534 Frenchmen (504-948-2583; www.bluenilelive.com), has an interior that’s a faux-Deco fantasy-worth walking from end to end. It was wall-to-wall by 10:30 p.m. for Javier Guitierrez & ViVaz, an incredibly polished local Latin group with a congas-and-brass repertoire that goes from old-style Havana big-band to pulsating salsa.
If you get a chance, especially before dark, walk up the narrow stairs to the second-floor and head to the front balcony. It’s a great view of Frenchmen Street-and directly across from The Blue Nile is an upstairs porch festooned with outdoor sculpture.
The Apple Barrel, 609 Frenchmen (504-949-9399), is smaller than a living room but is known for attracting late-night musicians who’ve wrapped up elsewhere: It stays open after other places have closed. Hunched in a corner by the door was a trio playing Delta blues. Anyone who can make it through the crowd to the back will find stairs that go up to Adolfo’s, an Italian restaurant.
The Spotted Cat, 623 Frenchmen (504-943-3887). An intimate and fun place, where I easily had the best time. It’s small, physically unpretentious, laid-back and known for adept booking. Right inside the door was crammed Panorama Jazz Band, a six- or seven-piece outfit there every Friday from 6 p.m. on. The sound is vintage but wide-ranging, from klezmer to Dixieland. Horns, accordion, flugelhorn-the instruments change with a song’s styling. It is utterly infectious.
Leader/clarinetist Ben Schenck, a 45-year-old from Maryland, has lived and played in New Orleans for two decades. The group has an ear for the city.
Panorama has a second life as Panorama Brass Band, a 12-piece marching, uniformed band that plays standard New Orleans Dixieland during Mardi Gras with the St. Anthony Ramblers, a walking group whose procession ends in Marigny.
There are other venues along Frenchmen and on nearby streets. You can find most any kind of sound and clientele along the way.
One of the more unusual may be Checkpoint Charlie’s at 501 Esplanade Ave, at Decatur, on the edge of the Quarter. It’s your basic corner dump-of-a-bar but with a few unusual touches: There’s live blues or rock from 8 p.m. until 4 a.m. most days, and there’s no cover charge. It’s also open (and serving bar food) 24 hours a day.
Also here: the ultimate neighborhood touch-there’s a laundromat along the back wall.
This is, after all, New Orleans.
EAT: Other great places to eat in the area: Port of Call (838 Esplanade Ave., across from Marigny at Duphine Street) is famous for its burgers. The line to enter frequently runs down the street, and you can catch a delicious, smoky whiff in the air from several blocks away. For fried chicken, check Coop’s Place (1109 Decatur) or Fiorella’s Cafe (1136 Decatur); both are in a nearby corner of the Quarter. Marigny Brasserie (640 Frenchmen, at Royal) is known for its Sunday jazz buffet.
SLEEP: The Frenchman Hotel (417 Frenchmen) is a small, old-fashioned place with lots of charm and a courtyard. It’s on the more quiet southern end of the street, near the Quarter and the river. Popular with older European couples. Rates: $59-$229. Details: 504-948-2166; www.frenchmenhotel.com.
– Fauberg Marigny Improvement Association: www.faubourgmarigny.org.
– New Orleans info: 504-524-4784; www.neworleansonline.com.
Meanwhile, Back on Bourbon Street …
You can still count on traditional New Orleans jazz at Fritzel’s European Jazz Pub (733 Bourbon), a combo-size place tucked into the general tourist madness. One of the prominent nightclubs, the Old Opry House (601 Bourbon), has the Bonoffs in the house-band rotation, often early evenings. They’re a long-established and high-powered Cajun/zydeco outfit led by Janson Lohmeyer; the woman adroitly handling the washboard is Alison Corbin, from Fayetteville.
Couples getting hitched in New Orleans often hire a Dixieland brass band to follow their horse-drawn carriage through the French Quarter. Saturday afternoons are prime.
© 2008, The Charlotte Observer (Charlotte, N.C.).
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