By Norma Kirkpatrick
Several months ago I made a trip to New Orleans with some friends, for a gathering of writers and researchers. While there I had the opportunity to make contact with publishers, hoping to find someone interested in the publication of a manuscript I had completed for a book. There were a variety of speakers on the program who shared their experiences and discoveries with the conference attendees. It was both stimulating and informative; making it well worth the trip.
I had not been to New Orleans in decades, and wondered what I would find. In my young adulthood, I had made several visits there; it was an easy drive from where I lived in Pascagoula, MS. I recall making the trip with my father and brother to attend my first Sugar Bowl. That was when women and young ladies wore high heels, a hat, and a large mum on their shoulder for a big game like that. Thankfully, we have better sense now.
Recalling the scenes I had viewed on television when Katrina struck that low lying city and the devastation of the storm surge that had flooded a large portion of the entire area, I had some misgivings about the venue we would find in New Orleans. Surely the Grand Old Dame could never be the same again after being flooded and stranded for days. I remember standing in front of the TV set in my house, pleading aloud to no one, to please help those people. My heart could barely take the suffering before my eyes.
At the close of my conference, we took advantage of the free time to do a little sight-seeing. To my relief, The Big Easy had come through all of it; not only as good as ever, but better. The hospitable atmosphere had not been lost, as a new generation of young families pushed strollers and held the hands of their little children, mingling about in the Quarter, enjoying a family night out for a walk in the cool evening air. Small groups of teens were doing the same. Having fun together; they courteously “begged our pardon” if they accidentally stepped in front of us.
The French Quarter was alive with people as my friends and I stopped for the obligatory cup of café au lait and a beignet at the open air Café du Monde. One of their signs said, “We Are Open 24 Hours a Day.” The girl in me recalled the first time I went to that very same place and did exactly the same thing.
The big treat of the evening was getting to go to Preservation Hall. That was something I had longed to do in the past, but always seemed to be with someone who wasn’t into music. But this time around, my friends insisted we should catch the 6:00 pm set as a special treat to me. The line was half way around the building by the time we got there at 5:15. The people in front of us were from Maine; but the three of us Southerners couldn’t stand in line for forty-five minutes without striking up a conversation with them. By 6:00, we were all friends.
There is nothing like New Orleans Jazz; you have to be raised in it before you can play it. The drummer said he started playing in the Quarter at the age of twelve; backing up his dad. He has now been drumming in the French Quarter for over fifty years. The piano player was totally gray, did the talking, and sat so erect I knew his piano teacher had demanded perfect posture. The bass player was the youngest. His father is the conductor of a symphony orchestra; but forgave his son for falling in love with jazz. There was also a man on trumpet and another playing clarinet; riffing out of sight and coming back to the melody; they never lost their way.
We sat on wooden benches, elbow to elbow; tapping our feet and swaying. The piano had been stripped down to the hammers and strings; an ancient old upright. There was no printed music. They took turns playing riffs and taking the lead; sometimes bursting into song. For over an hour the rustic setting was alive with the one of a kind music known as New Orleans Jazz. What we heard will never be repeated in exactly the same way again. Every set was original.
It takes a lot more than a flood to erase an atmosphere or break the spirit and memories of a people. It is also good to know that we can just keep getting better at what we do, if it’s something we love. All of us are original; in our own way.