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When I set out last year to write about great American music venues, the idea was to pick buildings whose histories are steeped in music, including familiar names such as Carnegie Hall in New York and half-hidden treasures such as Cain's Ballroom in Tulsa, Oklahoma. New Orleans reshaped my thinking.
For four days in early March (including Mardi Gras), I haunted a mile of Royal St. That included 13 blocks through the French Quarter and three blocks leading to Frenchmen St, where about a dozen music clubs are concentrated.
Why Royal? It's one of the city's oldest streets, dating to the early 18th century. Several of its blocks are closed to cars from 11am to 4pm most weekdays and 11am to 7pm most weekends.
Bourbon St's loud bars and drunken crowds make busking or street performances all but impossible, but this stretch of Royal invites it with art galleries, antique and jewellery shops and restaurants.
"Royal Street is where the trad jazz happens,'' sax player Aeryk Parker told me.
"If you need money, you walk down the street and hope somebody needs a reed player.''
You get all kinds. You might see the dreamy young singer whose every song is marred by her hyperactive drummer. The Christian puppet show with live accordion music. The bearded quartet whose careful grooming, vintage attire, Gypsy jazz repertoire and Gallic nonchalance all whispered Montmartre, 1925.
But finding Ketchens was harder.
First day, no Ketchens. Second day, no Ketchens.
Fortunately, there was still plenty to hear. I mostly gravitated towards traditional jazz players. Whenever I stayed for longer than one song, I tipped at least a dollar.
On my third day, wandering near Royal and Frenchmen, I got caught in a sonic riot called Mission Delirium - a San Francisco brass band on a working holiday in New Orleans. Eighteen musicians playing to win.
By the time I arrived, they were well into their set. Widespread dancing. One horn player was rolling around on the pavement while another crawled through shrubs. The four percussionists cavorted and collided.
Their set would have been enough to make my day. But minutes later, in the French Quarter, a gaggle of jazz players launched into Sweet Georgia Brown.
By the time they moved on to Darktown Strutters' Ball, they had gathered a crowd of 30 or more, including a cyclist who paused to hand them bananas.
Aeryk Parker, the front man on vocals and sax, had been splitting time between New Orleans and Denver. Former Angeleno Smitti Supab, on stand-up bass, had been in town for six years. Lamar Anderson Clark, another former Angeleno who arrived four years ago, was playing rhythm guitar.
Nathaniel Ruiz, on tenor sax, came from Illinois. Blanche Methe, who sat in on trumpet, had arrived three weeks before from Montreal.
As the crowd dispersed, the players huddled to count the take - more than $200 and a bag of weed.
"There's no club owner telling me what to play. I'm getting paid to have fun and learn,'' Supab said.
The downsides, Methe said, are that you never know if a spot will be open, tips will be rotten if it rains, "and sometimes you have all brass players and no rhythm section''.
That same day, I stopped by the New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park's office on North Peters St, where interpretive ranger Jon Beebe was giving a talk on the roots of jazz and local traditions of competition and mentorship.
You probably know about Louis Armstrong, Beebe told a group of mostly foreign tourists, but Armstrong built on the innovations of King Oliver. And Oliver built on the innovations of Buddy Bolden.
In Bolden's time, Beebe said, "there used to be bands almost on every street corner.'' It was "the proving ground before you could be able to play on the riverboats''.
In recent years, Beebe said, one of the most popular acts on the street was a duo, Tanya Huang, a violinist born in Taiwan, and Dorise Blackmon, a guitarist from New Orleans. They split in 2017, but Huang is still a regular at the corner of Royal and St Louis streets.
Then there's Tuba Skinny, an eight-member group that focuses on traditional jazz, ragtime and Depression-era blues. (The name is a nod to local musician Tuba Fats, who died in 2004.) They've been playing Royal St and local clubs since 2009.
"She's technically amazing. And she has more songs memorised than I'll ever learn.''
I sighed and bought one of her CDs at the Louisiana Music Factory on Frenchmen St.
By my last day in town, I'd inspected Armstrong's first cornet at the New Orleans Jazz Museum, sampled gumbo at half a dozen restaurants and watched the fast fingers of "Plink'' Floyd, Wednesday night banjo player at Cafe Beignet.
I'd heard the Royal Street Winding Boys at the Spotted Cat. I'd caught the traditional jazz show in Preservation Hall.
There was time for just one more walk on Royal. I'd barely begun when an arresting sound cut through the street noise.
A clarinet playing Summertime in front of Rouses Market.
I edged through the knot of people so I could see a tiny, smiling African American woman seated in a lawn chair. Fur hat, box of CDs at her side. She was Doreen Ketchens, joined by her husband, Lawrence, on tuba, a trombone player, guitarist, drummer and a semicircle of six buckets, all rapidly filling with bills.
Until I saw her on the street, I didn't realise she also sings, and she does it well. But the clarinet solos - they're in another category.
When the moment arrived, she grabbed her clarinet, furrowed her brow and leaned back and blew. If her eyes had been open, she'd have seen the third-floor wrought-iron railings of the 1830s LaBranche House across the street.
Later, when I asked her how she ended up playing Royal St, she said: "I fell in love with a tuba player ... I can only say so much. But I never was a club person. I never was a night person.''
Playing on the street, she said, "we had our bouts with the police where we lost at first. And then we won.'' Now, she said, "there's a level of respect that's working.''
About halfway through her set, Ketchens noticed a horn player perched on his instrument case.
"What you sittin' on?'' she called out. "Want to join us?''
He was Aeryk Parker, the sax player I'd met the day before. He'd never been invited to play with Ketchens. He pulled out his horn, told her his name was Parker and joined her on Royal Garden Blues.
"A hand for Parker, y'all!'' hollered Ketchens.
The applause rang up and down the block.
"Incredible,'' said Parker later, looking at the queen of Royal St.
"Something to aspire to."- TCA
When to go
- Three music-intensive events to pursue or avoid, depending on how you feel about crowds: the French Quarter Festival (April 2-5, 2020), the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival (date to be announced) and Mardi Gras (February 25, 2020).
Where to listen and learn
- Preservation Hall, 726 St Peter St, New Orleans; (504) 522-2841, preservationhall.com/hall. Five 45-minute traditional jazz shows nightly between 5pm and 10pm; all ages. Tickets $US20 ($NZ30.60)-$US50. Most tickets are general admission at the door (cash only), requiring a wait of 30 minutes or more before the show.
- Spotted Cat, 623 Frenchmen St, New Orleans; spottedcatmusicclub.com. Jazz nightly, different acts at 2pm, 6pm and 10pm. Cash only; 21 and older.
- Louisiana Music Factory, 421 Frenchmen St, New Orleans; (504) 586-1094, louisianamusicfactory.com. CDs, sheet music and other merchandise.
- New Orleans Jazz Museum, 400 Esplanade Ave, New Orleans; (504)568-6993, nolajazzmuseum.org. Admission $6 for adults. New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park, 916 N. Peters St, New Orleans; (504) 589-4841,nps.gov/jazz/index.htm
On the ’net
- French Quarter, bit.ly/royalstreetguideNew Orleans & Co., neworleans.com