Ain't no city like New Orleans

Music is helping to revive the fortunes of this town five years after Hurricane Katrina. Richard Holledge reports

When trombonist Craig Klein came back to his house a few days after the flood waters from Hurricane Katrina tore though New Orleans on 29 August 2005, he found, like thousands of others, that it was trashed beyond recognition. "The water was 10 feet high, almost reaching the second floor," he says. "The place was in turmoil. It was horrible to see that everything I had treasured was destroyed. All I could do was throw all the contents into the street, tear down the inside walls, clear out the foot of sludge and wait for it to dry out."

While he waited, he got in touch with friends in the music community – all of whom were in the same plight – and they resolved to help each other to get their homes and their lives back into some sort of order.

"As a musician, I knew I had to be in New Orleans because this is the only place to be," says Klein. "But I didn't know what was going to happen to the music scene, whether it would even survive, because so many had left and not been able to come back. Some had died. I needed the friends and the musicians that I worked with to be here, so four of us started gutting the houses of other musicians. Word got out and within weeks there was a wrecking gang of us who cleared about 120 properties.

"Pretty soon the musicians started coming back, but it was a slow process. The Maple Leaf club in Oak Street was the first to open, one month after, with a generator in the street for power. It proved that the spirit of New Orleans was still alive."

It is easy, five years on, to forget that the hurricane left more than 80 per cent of the city under water and killed 1,836 people. The Lower Ninth Ward, which was swept away by the storm leaving just two houses intact, is still a desert of scrubland and a few tumbledown properties, despite a high-profile housing scheme headed by the actor Brad Pitt. Astonishingly, more than 57,000 houses are still unfit to live in and more than 130,000 people have yet to return to New Orleans. They probably never will.

A musicians' charity, Sweet Home New Orleans, which tries to rehouse and advise struggling performers, reports that the number of gigs is down and the pay is less – a situation made worse by the spin-off from the BP oil disaster and the recession. Nonetheless, music is the best spirit level to gauge how well the city is recovering from the storm.

At the Rock'n'Bowl – a venue that improbably combines 10-pin bowling with music – the owner says: "I ain't sure, but I'm almost positive that all music comes from New Orleans." As if to celebrate that certainty he leaps on to the bar and proceeds to hula hoop the evening away while Klein's band, a trio of trombonists called Bonerama, blasts the audience to kingdom come.

Let's allow him the exaggeration. After all, this is the home of Harry Connick Jr, Dr John and Fats Domino. And despite the travails, post-Katrina, there are about 100 clubs and bars in New Orleans where live music is played, not to mention the street corners where lone trumpeters conjure up the ghost of the most illustrious of them all, Louis Armstrong.

So, where to go and who to listen to? Inevitably, the visitor to the Crescent City braves the 3C temperatures, so hot even the cockroaches scuttle for the shade, and heads for the French Quarter with its beguiling 18th-century houses, wrought-iron balconies and tiny gardens overflowing with hibiscus and roses. The Quarter is full of expensive antique shops, ersatz art galleries and restaurants – some distinctly smart like Brennans, some simpler like the Acme oyster bar, and others agreeably unpretentious, such as the Clover Leaf Diner on Bourbon.

Once in the Quarter, Bourbon Street draws the tourist like a sinful siren with its strip clubs, its raucous bars selling Huge Ass Beer, Tabasco-laced Bloody Marys, sazeracs – rye whisky and bitters – and with its gaudy shops stacked high with T-shirts and voodoo dolls. There are "bouncing booty" contests where young women abandon all shame – dangerous drink, that sazerac – by flashing their breasts at crowds on the balconies in return for strings of Mardi Gras beads, which are thrown down as a reward for their exhibitionism.

Harry Connick Jr once told me he despaired at the way the strip clubs were driving out the jazz. But there are are still a handful of clubs in Bourbon Street that present good, traditional music, such as Fritzel's folksy European Jazz Club, the Maison Bourbon, and the Jazz Playhouse at the Royal Sonesta Hotel, where one of the city's new stars, trumpeter Irvin Mayfield, performs.

Round the corner on St Peter Street is Preservation Hall – dedicated to keeping the flame of jazz alive. So many of the city's legends perform there that music lovers are happy to queue to get in, unperturbed that there is no bar and nowhere to sit.

The hall's director, Ben Jaffe, who plays tuba in its seven-man band, says: "We suffered an incredible emotional toll that we still haven't completely dealt with. A lot of friends and families never made it back and we lost musicians who played in Preservation Hall. Katrina knocked holes in the music community. It is hardly conceivable it survived and amazing that so much culture lived on. It became even more vivid, with a greater focus on the musical heritage of jazz funerals, parades and Mardi Gras. All these protect and perpetuate our traditions."

The biggest concentration of clubs is on Frenchmen Street, a few blocks east of the Quarter. Every night, most clubs have one or two bands playing. You'll hear reggae, R&B, funk, guitar and trad jazz. Check out Snug Harbour where Ellis Marsalis – "Socrates at the Keys" – plays piano most Friday nights. Try the Spotted Cat and d.b.a.. Then there's the Apple Barrel.

The true heartbeat of New Orleans can be found in the old slave quarter of Tremé, north of the French Quarter, where neighbourhood clubs play music the same way it's been played for generations in tiny, scruffy clubs that look like the rickety extension of a house or a roadside shack.

One of the local heroes is trumpeter Kermit Ruffins, who owns the Sydney Saloon on St Bernard Avenue. It is so small that the walls shake when the Rebirth Brass Band, one of New Orleans' most famous outfits, is in full swing. Kermit, who sports a jaunty cap twice the size of his head, is the personification of New Orleans music with his mix of swing and trad. He is a regular at nearby Bullet's (AP Tureaud Street) and Vaughans (Lesseps), where he often drives up with his portable barbecue in tow and proceeds to cook burgers on the pavement. His band? The Barbecue Swingers, what else?

A few blocks away are other neighbourhood joints, such as the Candlelight Lounge on North Robertson Street where the Tremé Brass Band plays every Wednesday, Sweet Lorraine's on St Claude Avenue, and the cramped Ernie K-Doe's Mother-in-Law Lounge on North Claiborne Avenue. A life-sized mannequin of the late, self-styled, Emperor of the Universe, who wrote the 1961 hit "Mother in Law", lurks in the corner of the bar. Only in New Orleans.

Some locals suck in their breath when they hear you have visited these clubs. Well, there have been 118 murders this year in New Orleans and someone one was killed in a shootout down the road from Bullet's only last month. But the atmosphere in these venues is like being at a particularly rowdy, but friendly, house-warming party with the musicians playing right in among the clubbers. The admission charge is usually about £5 and often a bowl of jambalaya or rice and beans is included. Or you can buy one of Kermit's burgers.

Take a taxi to Tipitina's, a barn of a place which has seen top names such as Dr John, Jerry Lee Lewis and the Neville Brothers perform and where Cajun music takes the stage on Sundays. When Katrina closed the place, one fan hired the regular band to play in her front drive.

Unique to New Orleans is the Second Line. This is traditionally a parade that followed mourners to a funeral and celebrated the deceased's passing with a street party. Now, nearly every Sunday, apart from in high summer, the city's Aid and Social Pleasure Clubs put on a parade.

Joe Stern of the Prince of Wales Club, explains: "The clubs were formed in the 1920s to help poor black people with insurance and welfare. A lot of the newer clubs are more social and pleasure, though we still do some community work."

His club parades three times a year in extravagantly designed outfits of discordant colours, holding parasols and twirling handkerchiefs. They parade for hours through their districts with a marching band setting the pace – and the rhythm.

Maybe the best way to get to know the music – and understand the city – is to see where the musicians are performing rather than choose a venue. Most details are published in the local paper, The Times Picayune (Nola.com) and the free entertainment guide, Offbeat magazine (offbeat.com). Look out for these performers: Bonerama – a trombone troupe which has won a big following; James Andrews and his younger brother Trombone Shorty; singer John Boutte; guitarist Ernie Vincent; Riccardo Crespo and Sol Brasil; the Vipers; Lars Edegran and the Palm Court Jazz Band and singer Amanda Walker.

At most venues a jar for tips will be handed round, like the one in Checkpoint Charlie's on Frenchmen which reads "Tips for Miserable Musicians". New Orleans' Angry Old Man, the ineffable Dr John, says: "Guys are making no different money now on gigs than they did a long, long time ago. At least in our time, back in the day, money was worth something.

"We musicians get more respect in the rest of world than what we do here in the USA. People here look at us as if we're something picked up on the bottom of a shoe, but we gave the world jazz and the blues. It's the truth."

Compact Facts

How to get there

Flights from London to New Orleans, via Charlotte, cost from £436 in September through Skyscanner (skyscanner.net).

Monteleone, on Royal Street (001 504 523 5541), offers rooms from £93 per night. Bourbon Orleans, Orleans Street, French Quarter (001 504 523 222), costs from £102 per night. Windsor Court, on Gravier Street (001 504 523 6000), costs from £250 per night.

Further information

Forthcoming events include: Mardi Gras, 8 March 2011; JazzFest, 29 April to 8 May 2011; Essence Music Festival, 1-3 July 2011; Satchmo Summer Festival, 4-7 August 2011; and the Gay Mardi Gras, 2-5 September 2011.

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