The Living Histories of New Orleans Jazz

“We’re not exactly an artifacts culture around here,” he said, gesturing to the cramped, two-room museum we’d just entered in New Orleans French Quarter. Around us on shelves were voodoo dolls, voodoo books, and voodoo statues, covered in feathers, garments, coins, and wishes wrapped up in folded pieces of paper.

This, from the curator of the New Orleans Voodoo Museum. We’re not exactly an artifacts culture? Then why in the world are you curating a museum, which, by its very definition, thrives on such objects?

His comment seemed a curious one, one that, at the time, didn’t make sense to me. But, as the weekend wore on and I walked many more streets in this elegant Southern City on the gulf, I started to think more deeply about what he meant, pondering the odd simultaneity here of the past and the present.

I thought about our room in the Degas House, high up on the third floor in the garrets, a room without windows, where Edgar Degas and his contemporaries would come and paint, uninterrupted, as they recovered from the devastation of the Franco-Prussian War. I thought about the wedding we had come to New Orleans to attend, the union between two friends of Irish descent who said their vows in the gardens of the Irish Cultural Museum, a place where photographs of the potato famine hung around the walls in the entryway. I thought about it as we read the inscription on Louis Armstrong’s statue near the pier on Algiers Point, as we read the plaque about the free people of color in the Treme as we made our way down Esplanade toward the French Quarter. Everywhere we walked, everywhere we looked, there were reminders of the rich, complex, and nuanced history of this incredibly unique place.

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All of these things—the renovated rooms, the black and white photographs, the statues, the dolls, the plaques—they are all reminders of what once was. But oddly, as the weekend went on, I started to realize that the curator’s comment at the voodoo museum was right: I honestly didn’t need any of these reminders. All of these things are still New Orleans. Recovery, race relations, a mix of religions, a mix of cultures, live music, classic restaurants: these living realities can never just be artifacts in museums.

New Orleans is synonymous with music, I know. Particularly jazz music, but also, its impromptu street music, the kind that no one could ever bottle up inside an artifact and put on display in a museum.

It’s this:

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Families, friends, musical colleagues, acquaintances, setting up shop in the middle of the pedestrian-friendly streets among 17th century French architecture, the humid air so characteristic of Southern cities, the palm trees, their fronds long and thick, the tree-lined medians. It’s all just so, well, spontaneous.

And it’s this:

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And though I am a museum enthusiast, one who loves the study and history of artifacts, sculptures, statues, and objects of human interest, spontaneity doesn’t—and one could argue it can’t—belong inside the walls of a curated exhibition.

But I didn’t really understand the power of this until I joined our friends’ second line to their wedding reception. I didn’t need to go to the Louisiana State Museum’s Jazz Collection, even though I knew it held some of the most incredible artifacts of jazz culture (such as Louis Armstrong’s first cornet), and filled its days with public lectures about the history of Louisiana jazz music and interpretative performances from classic jazz musicians. I was walking down the cobblestone streets of the French Quarter waving a white handkerchief in one hand and holding my high heels in another, and following a brass band as they played traditional jazz music in the streets. I was participating in a modern rendition of a very old West African tradition, brought to Louisiana by slaves and merged with the military brass band parade traditions of the Europeans and white Americans.

This is the history of New Orleans, raw, uncensored, unfiltered, uncurated, in the streets.

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From voodoo to jazz, from gumbo to barbeque shrimp and buttery grits, from the precarious race relations to the vivid remembrance of Katrina, this is the history of New Orleans, living, breathing, as it is. Though I’ve traveled to many lands, many places where history is lived, day in and day out, there is no place quite like New Orleans.

A special thanks to the wonderful team at the New Orleans CVB for arranging my stay in New Orleans.

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