Rob McFarland hears the jazz men testify as New Orleans musical history comes to life at Preservation Hall.
It's a typical Tuesday night on Bourbon Street. Young people clutching dangerously strong daiquiris roam the narrow, neon-lit strip, past a gaudy parade of bars, strip clubs and tattoo parlours.
Competing spruikers try to lure people inside with the promise of cheap drinks, while up on a balcony a group of guys is yelling at girls to lift up their tops. Two men stand morosely outside an empty bar wearing sandwich boards that read: "Huge Ass Beers".
This is my first time in the French Quarter and I'm struggling to reconcile the scenes with the romanticised vision in my head. New Orleans is, after all, the birthplace of jazz. I want to wander through the Quarter's historic streets to a soundtrack of soft clarinet melodies wafting from behind wrought-iron balconies. Instead, this feels like Sydney's Kings Cross on a Saturday night.
I'm here to experience jazz in the place where it began. Not because I'm an aficionado - on the contrary, I know almost nothing about the genre - but because I want to learn more. This turns out to be surprisingly difficult. You'd expect the birthplace of jazz to have a museum that celebrates one of its greatest exports. It doesn't.
Eventually, I find a small National Park Service office, which has a leaflet explaining a little of how the genre evolved. The office also has a self-guided audio walking tour of the city accessible by calling a local number - which, if your technology is on international roaming, could be the most expensive tour you ever take (the files can also be downloaded from nps.gov/jazz).
The tour guides me to the imposing columned entrance of the Old US Mint, where an exhibition containing "the largest assortment of instruments played by jazz artists in the world" is housed. "It's in storage," the security guard informs me, in a tone that suggests that's the best place for it.
I wander upstairs anyway and find a temporary exhibition about Preservation Hall, a New Orleans jazz venue started in 1961 by Allan and Sandra Jaffe. The couple's aim was to provide an outlet for traditional New Orleans jazz and preserve part of the city's musical heritage. What started as an informal jam session has evolved into a multifaceted business with a touring band and record label. The heart of the operation is still the hall itself, a weather-beaten shack on St Peter Street, a trumpet toss from Bourbon Street.
Later that night I join a queue outside the hall. Admission is $US15 ($14.20) and we shuffle into a small, sparsely decorated room lined with old soundproofing boards. The coveted bench seats have long gone so I sit cross-legged on a cushion on the wooden floor. Behind me, others fill the standing area.
There's no bar, airconditioning or dance floor. You don't come here to jive; you come to listen. As the musicians enter the room, I recognise several from the exhibition, including baby-faced trumpet player Mark Braud and 80-year-old clarinettist Charlie Gabriel, both immaculately attired in suit and tie.
Completing the seven-piece line-up are a trombonist, saxophonist, pianist, drummer and tuba player. For their first number, the saxophonist, Clint Maedgen, eschews the microphone, choosing instead to cup his hand round his mouth to sing a lingering, soulful version of the 1920s hit Whenever You're Lonesome (Just Telephone Me).
From here the band go upbeat, with a rousing rendition of Shake That Thing. Braud encourages us to join in and soon the room is echoing the chorus. The soloists stand, sway and rock in time to the music. The tuba player, Ronell Johnson, is bouncing up and down as if he's on a hot tin roof. By the end of the song the entire band are on their feet and I'm swept up in a grin-inducing rush of musical euphoria.
When the set ends I don't want to leave. So I don't. I stay for the third act, sitting so close to Charlie Gabriel I can feel his foot tapping on the floor.
During intermission I chat to a young Russian couple sitting behind me. They're on their honeymoon and tell me they've come to New Orleans to visit Preservation Hall. "Was it worth it?" I ask. "Oh, yes," they reply, wide-eyed and beaming, "it is so wonderful."
During the final set, people start making requests, dropping notes into an upturned hat in accordance with the instructions on the wall: "Traditional Request $5, Others $10, The Saints $20".
We hear a haunting version of Gershwin's Summertime plus the Louis Armstrong classic Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?. Eventually - and inevitably - someone drops in $20. If there's a more toe-tappingly infectious song than When the Saints Go Marching In, I haven't heard it. Within seconds of that joyous first blast of brass, everyone is on their feet, clapping and cheering in a roof-raising finale.
Shortly after the Jaffes opened Preservation Hall, Sandra Jaffe said: "We realise this can't go on forever. Our main concern is with these men that play true New Orleans jazz. We'll be around as long as they are."
Fifty years later, it's still going strong. So where is this fresh influx of musical talent coming from? I discover one part of the answer the following night, while walking back past the Old US Mint to Frenchmen Street, where I find half a dozen venues huddled along a two-block stretch.
The street is packed with an eclectic mix of artists, musicians, tourists and locals. A woman sits at a typewriter under a sign saying: "Writer for hire"; a band jams on the bonnet of someone's car. Jazz, swing and blues spill out of doorways and there's not a "huge-ass beer" sign in sight.
I edge into the packed bar of The Spotted Cat, where upbeat jazz band Meschiya Lake and the Little Big Horns are whipping the crowd to a frenzy.
As I watch the young, petite, heavily tattooed Lake belt out ragtime classics with a voice that could stop an elephant charge, I get the feeling New Orleans' musical future is in safe hands.
Rob McFarland travelled courtesy of Qantas and the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Qantas has a fare to New Orleans from Sydney for about $1820 low-season return, including tax. Fly to Dallas (15hr 5min), then on American Airlines to New Orleans (80min); see qantas.com.au. Melbourne passengers pay about the same and fly to Sydney to connect. Australians must apply for travel authorisation before departure at https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov.
Preservation Hall has live jazz nightly, 8-11pm. Admission $US15 ($14.20). See preservationhall.com.
Other New Orleans venues worth checking out include The Spotted Cat, spottedcatmusicclub.com; Snug Harbor, snugjazz.com; Tipitinas, tipitinas.com; and Sweet Lorraine's Jazz Club, sweetlorrainesjazzclub.com.
Staying and eating there
The stylish Maison Dupuy Hotel in the French Quarter has a charming courtyard and heated pool. Rooms from $US149 a night. See maisondupuy.com.
The historic Court of Two Sisters restaurant has a great daily jazz brunch. See courtoftwosisters.com.