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The hall is venerable, but the new-by-comparison Irvin Mayfield’s Jazz Playhouse in the Royal Sonesta Hotel has quickly become just as valuable, bringing quality jazz to Bourbon Street. On Friday night Joe Krown was hunched over the piano playing a driving version of Ray Charles’ “Mess Around” on a stage backed and flanked with rich, red curtains, and that red echoes visually behind the bar. The Friday Piano Professor happy hour series presents a number of the city’s top piano players for solo shows, and it taps into the city’s proud piano tradition.
The Jazz Playhouse made regular appearances on the HBO series “Treme.” Jon Seda’s Nelson Hidalgo often mixed business with pleasure there and Leon “Kid Chocolate” Brown – the trumpet player who ghosts for Rob Brown’s Delmond Lambreaux – is a regular performer as well. The booking policy is inclusive, presenting brass bands, members of Mayfield’s New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, Jason Marsalis, traditional jazz, and even late-night burlesque.
At the other end of the French Quarter, the Palm Court Jazz Cafe sits, a more mom-and-pop monument to traditional jazz. The business, owned by George and Nina Buck celebrates the music with jackets of albums released by George’s G.H.B. Records in the front window, along with yellowed newspaper clippings dating back to at least 2007 – and some look older. One of the Palm Court’s heroes, “Uncle” Lionel Batiste of the Treme Brass Band, passed away last year and he’s remembered on the window. Another, Lionel Ferbos, is now 101 and stories on his last few birthdays have been taped up as well. Ferbos still plays every Saturday night at the Palm Court, but on the Friday after Mardi Gras trumpeter Charlie Miller sat calmly at center stage leading the band.
Focusing solely on the locations that are destinations misses much of the music of the French Quarter. At night busking on Royal Street comes to a halt, but during the day it’s one of the points of call for street musicians from around the world. Even the Moonwalk is alive with eccentric, scruffy music performed by people with varying commitments to skill and shelter. On Friday night a marimba player and a conga player jammed on one side of Decatur Street while Ted Graham’s All-Stars shuffled out the blues across the way in Margaritaville. Another couple of musicians playing dobro, mandolin and kick drum serenaded customers on a haunted tour on Royal Street.
The French Quarter’s hotel bars split the difference between the happenstance of street corner buskers and shows around which an evening’s plans are made. The Hotel Monteleone renovated its Carousel Bar last year to expand it toward Iberville Street, and on Friday night the space was packed, some enjoying cocktails at its signature revolving bar, while others awaited Louis Prima’s daughter Lena, sitting first through a tenor sax-led version of “What’s Going On” by her backing band.
Nearby in The Ritz-Carlton, Jeremy Davenport’s playing to a packed Davenport Lounge. “It must have been moonglow,” he sang, bringing a bit of old-school Vegas to the Crescent City. His band can swing, and with the audience rapt he kept the Rat Pack patter to a minimum, letting his and his band’s chops do the work.
It often seems like Las Vegas is the model civic leaders envision for New Orleans: a tourist-friendly playground fueled by big bucks from Topeka, Des Moines and Terre Haute. Unlike Vegas, there is a there here. The French Quarter is a neighborhood, and musicians aren’t simply entertainers; they’re part of the community. It is one of the things that “Treme” got very right, and that means that most of the musicians in the French Quarter offer a fair exchange of music for your money. The French Quarter, unlike the Strip, isn’t a grift; it’s their home, even if just for a while. They have to represent.