50 States in 52 weeks: one night in New Orleans

Alison Fensterstock
21 March 2016

So you’ve only got one night in one of America’s hottest cities? Here’s your hour-by-hour gameplan for making the most of New Orleans after dark

As the late, great soul singer and famous eccentric Ernie K-Doe once said: “I’m not sure, but I’m almost positive, that all music came from New Orleans.” He was on to something. Beginning over two hundred years ago, instruments, rhythms and melodies from Africa, Cuba, Haiti and Europe came together in New Orleans to create the building blocks of jazz and the roots of rock n’roll.

Today, New Orleans remains a city driven by the beat, where brass bands parade through the streets during the day and nightclubs pulse with sound into the wee hours. Without trying to hard, a visitor could catch live music in New Orleans at nearly any hour. Here’s a suggested schedule:

6pm Head to Frenchmen Street at the edge of the French Quarter and catch one of the many happy-hour sets presented along the bustling, eclectic strip of clubs and restaurants. (Or catch several; such early-evening shows rarely charge a cover.) The Spotted Cat programs a full slate of traditional jazz. Across the street at d.b.a., which offers an impressive list of regional beers, Grammy-winning R&B piano pounder Jon Cleary and passionate soul vocalist John Boutte both play regular weekly sets. And down the block at Three Muses, inventive craft cocktails are served to the accompaniment local artists like saucy jazz singer and ukulelist Debbie Davis and pianist Tom McDermott, who’s as likely to interpret Jelly Roll Morton as he is Brazilian choro. Elevated bar snacks like spicy fried oysters on toasted cornbread or deviled eggs topped with duck cracklings will power you along to your next stop.

8pm Go deeper into the heart of the Quarter to pay homage at Preservation Hall, a temple to traditional jazz for more than half a century. The band faithfully plays three sets of standards per night; often, particularly during festival season, special late-night shows bring in marquee guests.

9.30pm A crumbling brick corner building at the levee’s edge, downriver in the Bywater neighborhood, houses Bacchanal – a cosy, rustic wine shop with a verdant courtyard lit by twinkling strings of bulbs. Grab a bottle or two and sit under the waving palm fronds and stars for an improvisational jazz set from cellist Helen Gillet or a Django Reinhardt-inspired performance by guitarist Raphael Bas. A small window under the balcony serves decadent cheese plates as well as an ever-changing menu of seasonal tapas inspired by the flavours of the Mediterranean.

11pm A couple of blocks away from Bacchanal is the neighbourhood institution Vaughan’s Lounge, a ramshackle tavern with tree stumps outside standing in for tables and chairs. On Thursday nights, it hosts one of the city’s longest-running, most raucous brass-band residencies. Most weeks it’s Corey Henry, a former member of the Rebirth Brass Band, rattling the roof with his Treme Funktet. Grab a cold Abita beer to cool down after sweating on the dance floor. 

1am Check local listings in advance for local and national touring bands at storied clubs like One Eyed Jacks – the French Quarter’s rock'n'roll headquarters – or Tipitina’s, the legendary independent music spot Uptown, still going strong after nearly 40 years. (At Tip’s, look up to see the face of Professor Longhair looming over the stage – there’s also a bust of the old-school piano professor near the door.) If it’s Jazz Fest or Mardi Gras time, late-night jazz and funk jams will just be getting started as the clock ticks into the next day.