A critic once called jazz "the sound of surprise," but it's no surprise in music-loving New Orleans that the annual Jazz and Heritage Festival has become the city's biggest single attraction after Mardi Gras. Held this year April 24-May 3, the festival is expected to break last year's record Fairgrounds attendance of 330,000.
That's the crowd in the daytime, when most Jazzfest events are scheduled. And when the spirit moves thousands to keep on dancing and finger-snapping through the night, they could do a jazz and blues crawl from Preservation Hall to Cafe Brasil to Tipitina's to Benny's Bar, and spend less than you would for one night in many a Manhattan venue.
Here's one music lover's subjective listing. One caveat _ except for the French Quarter clubs, don't wander too far from the place for some fresh air at intermission. Most are located in neighborhoods that are dark and quiet at night, and, as in many cities, street crime can be a problem.
New Orleans is best known for the style of jazz that reached its height in the 1920s _ the music popularized by Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet _ and the best place to hear that antique sound is the lace-curtained Palm Court Jazz Cafe (1204 Decatur St., 525-0200), as much a restaurant as a jazz club. Call for reservations and try to catch 82-year-old jazz banjoist Danny Barker, a living legend. Another popular musician often at the Palm Court is clarinetist Pud Brown. Brown began playing professionally at the age of 5, and that was 70 years ago. There is a $3-per-person charge for sitting at the tables, unless you're dining.
Just down the street from the Palm Court is the newly reopened Storyville (1104 Decatur St., 522-2500). Most of the huge former music hall is now a comedy club, but a corner was preserved as a cozy, no-cover, piano bar. Pianist Eddie Bo, who was an important sideman and producer on many rhythm & blues records of the '50s and '60s, plays here often.
The city's most famous music club is Preservation Hall (726 St. Peter St., 522-2841), but no description of Preservation Hall would be complete without a warning about how disappointing it can sometimes be. Be prepared for an hour or more wait on the street outside. Admission is only $3, but once you're inside, you may sit on one of the uncomfortable benches or you may stand _ and it's strictly BYO. The place lives up to its name _ it preserves the most famous music of New Orleans every night at 8:30 by presenting musicians (such as Kid Sheik and Percy Humphrey) who learned from original masters in the early part of this century. But the results are hit or miss.
The two most famous names in New Orleans jazz are still going strong. Clarinetist Pete Fountain plays in his eponymous club in the Hilton Hotel (523-4374), and trumpet player Al Hirt is newly back in town after leaving in a huff a number of years ago, complaining about crime and degeneracy in the French Quarter. (Hirt is still persona non grata among some offended locals.) He plans to play regularly at Jelly Roll's (501 Bourbon St., 368-0501).
But New Orleans moved on long ago from that original and descended jazz. Today, the city expresses itself in the rhythm & blues, jazz and rock of the Neville Brothers, in the blend of new and traditional jazz by Wynton Marsalis and family, in the wild and funky street-dancing music of such groups as the ReBirth Brass Band and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, in the foot-stomping zydeco sound of Rockin' Dopsie's wailing accordion.
Local music lovers hightail it out of the French Quarter and most likely head to Tipitina's (501 Napoleon, 895-8477). This place is legendary, named after a song by the late pianist Professor Longhair, who was a regular (and part-owner). Nowadays it's the home base of the Neville Brothers and the rock group Radiators, to name two local acts gone national. For the most popular groups, you may have to get advance tickets at Ticketmaster. Otherwise, the cover is usually $4 or $5.
Dancing of various kinds is encouraged at the Maple Leaf (8316 Oak St., 866-9359), where several of New Orleans' favorite groups are regulars. Accordionist Rockin' Dopsie brings his seven-man band on most Fridays. R
B man Walter "Wolfman" Washington appears on Saturdays, and the ReBirth Brass Band funks it up on many Tuesdays. New-wave Tex-Mex is what the Iguanas offer on Sundays. Other nights are usually devoted to Cajun music. When weather permits, the back courtyard is open. Cover is usually $5.
Just a block down the street, some of the same musicians appear at Muddy Waters (8301 Oak, 866-7174). Although known mostly for "alternative" rock, the club also features brass bands and blues singers. Cover is usually $5.
The new Warehouse Cafe (1179 Annunciation, no phone), closer to the Quarter, has been furnished with leftovers from Oliver Stone's JKF sets and features music Fridays and Saturdays. The cover is usually $2, not always collected at the door but sometimes throughout the night.
The Mid-City Lanes (4133 S Carrollton Ave., 482-3133) is a bowling alley, but it's also a popular music club. Sunday is Caribbean night and on Thursdays there is an open blues jam. No cover for the music; lanes are $8 an hour.
If the end of the last set at any of these places finds you wanting more, head to Benny's Bar at 938 Valence (895-9405), where the music begins late (midnight or so) and lasts longer than do most patrons. You won't find famous names among the musicians who appear in this tiny run-down room, but the blues jamming can be superb. (You may find famous names among the listeners _ Dennis Quaid has been seen here.) There is no cover charge, but the musicians ask for contributions.
What to do if you're stuck in the French Quarter but want to avoid the tourist-packed places? Cross Esplanade Avenue and walk two blocks down Chartres Street into the Faubourg Marigny.
Snug Harbor (626 Frenchmen St., 949-0696) regularly hosts Charmaine Neville (of the famous family) and pianist Ellis Marsalis (of the other famous family). The music is mostly contemporary jazz, and performers include up-and-comers from the University of New Orleans and the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts. Admission is $8 to $10.
Just a block away is Cafe Brasil (2100 Chartres St., 947-9386), one of the hottest spots in town. Cafe Brasil's music menu is the most eclectic around. The entrance charge varies from no cover to $8. There's no cover for the sidewalk tables, where music can be heard.
Always call ahead to see who is playing or even to determine if the place still exists. Check the calendar in the Times-Picayune (Friday's "Lagniappe" section has the most extensive listings) or the free and authoritative monthly Offbeat, available at various hotels and other businesses.
Thomas Brown is a free-lance writer living in New Orleans.