As I sit down to write the tenth entry into my New Orleans travel diary, I find myself following some rather amusing associative thought-processes. It’s all a complete accident, isn’t it? A coincidence? For a week now I’ve been listening to the Chopin Nocturnes as I go about trying to make sense of my impressions of the Big Easy and refine them into something ordered, coherent, and written. The complete nocturnes run about 2 hours, which is about how long it takes me to write a post. It was a decision I made, to have this piece of music accompany my thoughts of New Orleans- but why? Some part of me decided that it was appropriate, that it would “get me in the mood”, that it related specifically to the subject. I like the idea that this piece of music can help me understand my subject and facilitate the process by which I draw out something that is muddled, conceptual, imagistic, and weave it into a structure of sentences and paragraphs. The only thing is, Chopin and his Nocturnes have absolutely cock-all to do with the subject of my writing. For one, Chopin was Polish, and to my knowledge never stepped foot on Bourbon Street. And what’s more, the nocturnes couldn’t be further from the musical identity of the Big Easy.
New Orleans is debauched and bluesy, a carnival of bombastic trumpets and ever-so-sultry saxophones. The nocturnes are a series of 21 piano solos, using gentle, harmonious notes that seem to “tumble” over each other, rising and falling like the belly of a sleeper, to evoke something deeply introspective, contemplative, and personal. Now that I think about it, it’s a very introverted piece of music. New Orleans, by all accounts, is the exact opposite. It’s not one sound, nor one voice- it’s many. It’s energy. It’s every color at once. It’s inclusive, extroverted, rambunctious. Multicultural, interwoven, blended. It’s the antithesis of the old world and the classics. It’s not brooding, it’s playful.
I realized then, that the only possible connection that Chopin had to New Orleans was his surname, which he shares with the writer Kate Chopin, of no relation. Alas, there was nothing complex and interesting about his work that drew me to associate it with my subject, but merely the coincidence that he had the same surname as the author of the great novel The Awakening. And now that I think about it, Kate Chopin established a lot of my preconceptions about New Orleans and its culture. I had been assigned the book in 2012 during my time at the University of Wisconsin- Eau Claire. It tells the story of Edna Pontellier and her slow abandonment of the orthodox notions of femininity and family. I was too lazy then to actually read the novel, but I was inspired and intrigued by my professor’s lectures on it. So it might be that my perception of New Orleans is a little warped, but my memories of those lectures provided a kind of framework through which I constructed my own image of the city and its famous French Quarter. When I arrived there, I too would be on a voyage of discovery like Edna.
At this point I want to come back to the idea that music can reveal in a very affecting and unique way a place’s temperament. It may not have been true of the Chopin Nocturnes, but by investigating that random thought-thread, I’ve considered more what makes New Orleans the place it is- and how Jazz might just be the best way to understand it.
The Big Easy. That name alone is indicative of a place that celebrates the quirky and free-spirited. As I’ve written in previous posts, there is perhaps no trait that’s endeared this city to me more so than its commitment to art. And hand-in-hand with that is the rejoicing of decadence. New Orleans is a decadent place, from its music to its food. The ingredients, seasonings, and recipes of the city have their roots in the colorful cultures of France, Spain, and the Caribbean. The dishes I had were hot and spicy, to the point that I worried the mild tastes I had grown up with as a resident of the U.K would prevent me from properly enjoying it. I had deep-fried jumbo shrimp wrapped in bacon, alligator sausage po’boys, crawfish étouffée, chicken & seafood gumbo, and the city’s famous blackened redfish. For dessert I had pecan pie and bread pudding. I realized that a lot of these dishes were what I had considered Cajun food. A little research told me that the difference between Creole and Cajun cuisine was not the dishes themselves, but the people making them. Creole food was the food of the city, and Cajun the food of the country. That also explained why all the restaurants in New Orleans referred to themselves as Creole restaurants, and not Cajun.
I also noticed that the French Quarter has a huge smoking culture. It’s the first American city I’ve been in where I’ve noticed people smoking. It’s something that’s commonplace in Europe, as evidenced by the shock Americans have when seeing London and Paris for the first time. Tobacco is something the Americans have done a much better job of eradicating than we Europeans. But in New Orleans, it’s being kept alive. The French Quarter is full of cigar shops, tobacco and snuff-box specialty stores, and hookah bars, and down the street you see plenty of people holding cigarettes, roll-ups, vaporizers, cigarillos, et cetera. Smoking has always freaked me out, but I couldn’t deny it seemed at home in the Quarter.
Throughout The Awakening, Edna has to ask herself if she can be brave enough to let go of her inhibitions and embrace a playful and passionate lifestyle where she is free to pursue her desires. The French Quarter seemed to be asking me the same question. I looked at the painters and the drunkards and the buskers and the smokers and I wanted to be brave like them. The Quarter is an environment that encourages indulgence- for whatever sin, vice, or pastime you please- and as such it’s an environment that challenges you. Like Edna, I viewed the free-spirited existence of these people as an invitation. And to accept it would require overcoming my shyness or self-consciousness. The Quarter is a place that wants to hear your voice.
It’s also a place where artists feed off of each other for creativity and inspiration. Rather than feeling competitive or intimidated by another’s talent, one is made stronger by it. Seeing someone honing their craft and demonstrating their skill encourages one to join in and put him or herself out there. I learned quickly that a lot of the artists in the Quarter knew each other. On Instagram, I discovered local painter Lauren Breaux through the cabaret singer Angie Z I admired so much from the night before. I contacted Lauren to tell her how much I liked her paintings. She replied that she too found Angie Z especially ravishing, and that she was one of her favorite muses, having painted her several times. I then asked Lauren if she could create a digital portrait of me to use for my blog. I was eager not just to support the local art scene, but to be inducted into the community in some small way. Here’s what Lauren came up with:
If you want to find out more about Lauren’s work, check out her Etsy page here!