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Can you hear it?” Dad asked, sitting as far forward as his chair would allow before toppling him to the floor. I looked at the quartet on stage, then closed my eyes and listened: the swish of the drummer on brushes instead of sticks, the thump of the bass being plucked. I still couldn’t hear it — not through the gorgeous, lingering, complex riffs these masters were cutting. Somewhere in there was the melody of the jazz staple, “Sweet Georgia Brown,” filling the room with beats as thick and rich as the smoke and perfume of any speak-easy hall.
We were at Snug Harbor Jazz Bistro on Frenchmen Street, about a mile and a half and a musical world away from Bourbon Street in New Orleans, where Dad — who had raised me on Pete Fountain, Oscar Peterson and Artie Shaw — had grown a little frustrated with the pop-rock cover bands catering to the crowds. He wanted the true local jazz, the serious NOLA sound, which is why we’d come here, as he put it, “anytime other than Mardi Gras.”
For sure, this city’s heart is easiest to find if you cruise into the scene in December or January. Yes, the locals call it the cold season, but 66 degrees is downright balmy to snowbirds coming from the North during this time of year. “We’re not Key West in December,” says Chuck Dixon, harbor master at Orleans Marina, “but we get a lot of great days.” The major boat traffic, he adds, usually starts arriving around October.
The boater’s equivalent of a true NOLA experience like my jazz night out is the New Basin Canal, within walking distance of Orleans Marina and filled with dining options along Lakeshore Drive. Forget the tourist version of po’boys and head to The Blue Crab for all the fried oysters, shrimp, catfish and crab claws you can stand. You’ll feel full, not just with food but with the soul of the city, especially on the nights with live music.
And then, you can dance back to the boat. Make your own melody along the way. That’s how the masters do it.
Can you take it? Fat Tuesday at Riverwalk claims that its 190 Octane daiquiri is the strongest in all of New Orleans. Want a different flavor? Ask for the Crawgator or Jungle Juice.
Hot Jazz Think you don’t know Dixieland? We’ll wager that you do: Having read this just now, try to go the rest of the day without humming a bar or two from “When the Saints Go Marching In.”
Don’t say it! The electric rail vehicles used for public transportation in New Orleans are called streetcars — never trolleys. Using the T-word will peg you as an outsider, probably one from Philadelphia.
Oyster Heaven The fried-oyster po’boy is a New Orleans staple, with some chefs now elevating the dish to gourmet heights. Look for versions with garlic-butter sauce or bahn mi bread.
Oh, the Beignets Cafe du Monde serves these French-style pastries, which are square, covered in powdered sugar and served in batches of three. Go ahead and order six at the start. There’s no reason to feign modesty here.