The beer had a strange aftertaste of carrots but it was free so I gulped it down. It was jazz night and the musician on stage was warbling out a song more country twang than anything else. As he was the owner of the bar all the drinks were on the house. He must have been feeling charitable in the warmth of all the clapping or maybe there was some sort of affectionate nostalgia from picking up his old guitar. Whatever the reason, the beer kept coming. All around us the room was hot and sweet, tables and floors sticky in that way of summer bar hopping, and a mellow buzz of night-time bliss pressed against us.
My friend and I had been looking for jazz since New York. Over a year ago we had gone on a trip to Manhattan and indulged in all the clichés — we strolled through Central Park, gawked at the splendour of the Met, emptied our wallets in SoHo, choked down spicy food in Chinatown and cried over a closing number at a Broadway show. One night, late enough that Times Square was practically deserted, we wandered into a martini lounge looking for a taste of live jazz.
Just as we were sitting down, a tiny woman in a fedora and a sequin blazer stepped on stage. She fiddled with the mike a moment and then let out a long note, like a moan and a cry all at once. The speakers carried her voice through the air and floor so loud that our limbs trembled with it, the words vibrating under our skin. By the time we left the bar our ears were ringing and we had silly grins stretched across our faces.
The problem is, once you’ve tried something once you want to do it again. We needed to do it again. Going to jazz bars was like chasing a high.
So there we were, recently freed from our university degrees, sitting in a Chicago bar drinking bad beer and listening to a strange fusion of country jazz. We weren’t sure that this lonely prairie sound was the music we had been searching for, but it reached inside us and settled something that had been pacing almost restlessly. On the cusp of responsible adulthood, my friend and I had decided to indulge in some selfish pleasure seeking by travelling through the States. Real life would have to wait a while, our wanderlust came first.
Chicago was only the starting point of our whirlwind tour and we were excited by the city’s reputation for the blues and jazz music scene. The bar we ended up at was popular for its twin stages which allowed for two acts to perform at the same time in separate rooms. Curious about the double feature we took a peek into the second room. There was a woman on the other stage, shaking her head side to side, flirting with her guitar and throwing saucy smiles out at the audience. We were witnessing the birth of the bastard child between metal rock and jazz. It was wonderfully voyeuristic.
All the walls of the bar were painted over with vivid murals which seemed to come alive in the dark to the rhythm of the music. In one room, a marching band paraded down Frenchmen Street in old New Orleans, blasting their French trumpets and trombones. In the other there was a steamboat chugging down the Mississippi with a silhouette that looked an awful lot like Tom Sawyer sitting under drooping Spanish moss. Foreshadowing had never felt so sharp before.
We played hopscotch over the United States until we finally hit New Orleans, the birthplace of jazz. Chicago had been good to us, but we wanted something more pure, more ecstatic in its musical abandon. So of course our first night in town we ended up on Frenchmen Street.
Finding good music in New Orleans isn’t hard, choosing what you want to listen to is the tricky bit. As soon as we crossed the boundary into the French Quarter, the oldest neighbourhood in New Orleans, we were inundated with music. There was noise spilling out of every door, window and courtyard. It wasn’t even Mardi Gras and yet all of Bourbon Street was bustling with people swinging around bead necklaces and sipping lazily from their beers and cocktails. This infamous party street has such a gritty exuberance that we felt almost overwhelmed by all the sensations clamouring for our attention. Pushing onwards we finally reached Frenchmen Street.
Here the street was quieter and there were less people wandering about under the dim light of the gas lamps. Every time we walked past an open door, music would slip out quietly into the night, tempting us to step inside until we finally decided on a bar. There was nothing fancier inside than a couple of tables and plastic chairs but the room was filled to the brim with lively jazz. An ensemble of young men was performing a rhapsodic racket up on stage, packing each musical note with all the energy they could muster. It was an amateur show but it had us jiggling our feet along to the music.
You don’t need to be a virtuoso to play jazz. As we discovered over the course of our stay in New Orleans, enthusiasm and fierce spirit will suffice. Even if we hadn’t spent each night in a different jazz bar we still would have heard enough music to fill a few albums. There were street performers everywhere, appearing out of alleyways and courtyards in small flash mobs, drawing crowds to them like bugs to lanterns. You only had to turn a corner and there in front of you would be a band of trumpeters and saxophonists.
Our pursuit of jazz had led us to strange fusions of genre in Chicago and improvised jams at the local bars of New Orleans. We finally hit the crescendo when we boarded the steamboat Natchez for a cruise along the Mississippi River. The evening was to include live jazz by ‘The Dukes of Dixieland’ and we couldn’t envision anything better.
We found some chairs right beside the smokestacks which separated us from the rest of the audience. Sitting so close to the band it almost felt like the music was there only for us. As the steamboat left the harbour, slowly making its way up river, the band picked up their instruments and soon the bouncing tune of ‘When The Saints Go Marching In’ was rippling out over the water.
Dusk was on the horizon, pouring purple hues into the water as music saturated the warm summer air. One of the musicians was playing a bright red cello as though he was swing dancing with a pretty girl, swaying and tapping along to the music. When the main trumpet player began to croon Louis Armstrong’s ‘What a Wonderful World’ in a low gravelly voice it was like falling into a soft bed after a long day.
The steam whistle blew overhead just as they hit the final notes and there was a moment of clarity. It was as if we had finally remembered the name of the song that had been stuck in our heads on a constant loop. Our thirst for jazz was quenched at last on the lazy waters of the Mississippi.