The Crescent City. NOLA. The Birthplace of Jazz. There are a ton of names for New Orleans, and all of them help describe just how amazing the city is. I finally got the chance to visit New Orleans, but not because I decided that I wanted to randomly go to NOLA for a week. My school’s band director (I’ve been in band since I was in 6th grade, just graduated college on May 15th) asked me and 2 of my friends (also in band) if we wanted to go to New Orleans with the Jazz Band. He wanted to add a few more players to make a street performing band, so he chose the three of us. We left on Monday, May 18th and got back on Friday, May 22. Here is a look at how our week turned out!
My Monday was spent doing some last minute packing. I had to make sure that I had my performance uniform (which is just a specific t-shirt, shorts, socks, shoes, and a hat), along with all of my nice clothes (our director doesn’t allow denim on trips, so no jeans…). Around 4:30 p.m. I left to go to our band hall for a last-minute rehearsal at 5:00 p.m. The band hall’s main hallway was lined with suitcases, backpacks, instruments, and tons of sound equipment. Loading all of that on a charter bus’ lower storage was the ultimate packing challenge, but we all managed to pull it off. After everything and everyone was loaded on to the bus, we finally departed for New Orleans at 7 p.m. This was going to be a 12 hour bus ride that only stopped to refuel and to switch bus drivers. The best part of that? I have found myself incapable of sleeping on a bus. Yay all-nighter!
I don’t normally drink coffee, but man did I need some. Staying up all night on a bus full of sleeping people can be extremely dull. We did bring movies to watch, but the person who was in charge of changing movies eventually fell asleep. Thank goodness for the bus’ WiFi! This was also a good time to listen to my long trip travel playlist, The Journey. When we arrived in New Orleans, everyone was in between waking up and sleep. There is no good way of sleeping on a bus, so most everyone was feeling pretty stiff and grumpy. Luckily, we all knew what our first destination was, so the mood was lightened a little. After taking a few wrong turns and blocking a few intersections (maneuvering a large charter bus on tiny roads and sharp turns can make traffic awkward really quick), we finally pulled up, at 6 a.m., outside of our boutique hotel, The French Market Inn, on Decatur Street in the French Quarter. Our check-in time wasn’t until 4 p.m., but luckily they allowed us to shove all of our luggage and instruments into one of the rooms early.
After a rushed unloading of the bus, we were anxious to sit down to a classic New Orleans breakfast. We walked down the street and made it to our first destination of the trip, Café Du Monde. All of us were very excited to finally get to try beignets and get some coffee in our systems. We all sat down at small 4-person tables in the outside seating are of the café and were greeted by this sweet old lady who was our server. Nearly all of us ordered the same thing, a cup of coffee and beignets, which is really the only thing a person should get at Café Du Monde. As I said before, I don’t normally drink coffee, but this coffee was needed and it was excellent! As we shoved our faces with giant clumps of dough and mountains of powdered sugar, we got our first experience of the New Orleans street performers. An old man walked up and started playing his trumpet outside of the café. To a bunch of college aged people, who are also really good musicians, this was a pretty cool experience. It didn’t matter that his playing was slightly out of tune, he was putting his heart into it and we all loved it. He even started to sing a few times!
My friend, Daniel, was the first of us to be extra touristy and bought 4 cans of the café’s coffee right before we left to get ready for our own street performances. I, of course, gave him crap later since he bought it straight from the café for a larger price instead of going to other gift shops in the French Quarter and buying for much cheaper. We even passed a few of these shops on our way back to our hotel. When we arrived back at the French Market Inn, it was lucky for us that not many other guests were there yet. Our group was rather large and we partially filled the inner courtyard. The inner courtyard of the French Market Inn was absolutely gorgeous. It had a small lounging pool for guests to cool off in the humid, hot New Orleans weather. We even found a little ginger cat that seemed to live in the courtyard, who I believe was named Chester. After we all changed out of our street clothes into our uniforms, we then made our way to our first spot to perform, the steps in front of Washington Artillery Park on Decatur St.
When we arrived at the steps, there was quite a crowd sitting on the steps resting from walking in the humid heat. They seemed quite surprised to see such a large group of musicians, all wearing the same outfit, getting ready to perform on the streets. Normally, you could expect to see a performing group of around 5 at the most, not 19. When our group comes together to do performances like this, we are known to everyone as Brass & Sass. When Brass & Sass shows up to perform, madness and shenanigans are sure to follow, and that’s just what happened with this performance.
After entertaining this group of people, we then moved on to where most performers go, Bourbon Street. The problem presented to us when we arrived was that since Bourbon Street was known for having great street performers during the day, this meant we had a little trouble finding a spot to perform. Luckily, we found a spot next to a guy performing as a transformer. Yes, he was dressed like Bumblebee from Transformers and actually transformed from a car into a man.
After our street performances, all of the energy that came from those beignets and coffee had worn off and we needed food. We all headed back to the hotel, to drop off our instruments, and then made our way to find lunch. We made it down the street before deciding on eating at New Orleans Hamburger & Seafood Co. This was a 2-leveled restaurant, with bars on both floors, and served New Orleans themed hamburgers and classic New Orleans-style cuisine. I ordered the chicken & sausage jambalaya and…wow…it was amazingly good. No one was disappointed with what they ordered. When we were done eating, we were finally able to go check-in to our hotel rooms.
After we checked-in and got all of our stuff moved into our rooms, we all then set out to explore. I set out to do one of my favorite things to do when I visit a new place, get lost. My friends, Daniel and Austin, both followed as we found many quirky stores and restaurants around the French Quarter. We couldn’t wander for too long, as we had to meet up at jazz pub on Bourbon Street later on for our jazz band’s performance. Since the three of us were asked to come on the trip only to perform on the streets, we didn’t have to play this gig, but we did have to help set up and enjoy the music. As we were enjoying our being lost (honestly, I think I was the only one having fun being lost…they seemed nervous), we came across some older residential houses and apartments. You could see water lines on some of the buildings that hadn’t been repainted as well. This opened our eyes a little more as to how abused and decimated this city was by the many hurricanes that hit it. After spending some time wandering through more streets, it was finally time for us to make our way back to Bourbon St. The venue that the jazz band was to play at was Fritzel’s European Jazz Pub, a really small pub, but it was a pretty cool place to be. Every wall you looked at was covered in pictures of jazz artists and groups that have played at the venue. It also became apparent that setting up the jazz band in this small of a space was going to be a challenge. We had everyone sitting shoulder-to-shoulder just to get them somewhat fit in the space. Other than the space restriction, we all had a great time at the performance. The jazz band played fantastically and we three got to enjoy listening to some great jazz from our friends.
The nightlife of Bourbon Street was starting to pick up as we were packing up all of the equipment. Neon lights and promoters lined the streets trying to get people to come check out what they were offering, whether it was booze or a show. As we were making our way through the madness, trying to get back to our hotel, we all ready to get some food in our stomachs. It seemed to be a general consensus that everyone was going to the same place, a brewhouse just down the street from our hotel called Crescent City Brewhouse. The meal I had there was, single-handedly, one of the best meals I’ve had in my life. I looked at their menu and everything looked so delicious that I decided to have a 3-course meal. My appetizer was a Crawfish Mac & Cheese, which was mouth-watering and had amazing flavor. My entrée was a Southern Crispy Duck (slow roasted and flash-fried for extra crispiness), which came with collard greens and homemade andouille cornbread. My dessert was a bread pudding that ruined me for all other bread puddings. Any other bread pudding seemed dull compared to the decadence of that bread pudding. Every plate of my meal was basically licked clean. I also got to try some local craft soda called Swamp Pop. My particular bottle was a praline cream soda and that was dangerously good. I had to control myself from not ordering multiple bottles (I’m a junkie for craft sodas).
Most of our group was tired after the long day we had, but a few of us wanted to go wander around Bourbon St. more. After paying our bills, we set out to go check out the nightlife. We wandered up and down Bourbon St. trying to find a good bar to hang out at. The others wanted to find a chill, sit-down bar that we could just hang at. Chill and Bourbon St. doesn’t really mix that well, but we eventually found this little pub just off of Bourbon, called Finnegan’s Easy. While hanging out and talking to the bartender, we found at that she was from St. Louis, MO (we’re all from Springfield, MO if you didn’t know). We asked her why she just randomly moved from St. Louis to New Orleans, and she told us that she had just always wanted to be in this amazing city. After a while, we made our way back to the hotel to get ready for another busy day.
Today was a day that most of us were really excited about. We were getting to spend the day at the National World War II Museum, along with another jazz band performance in its courtyard. Being a total museum junkie and extremely interested in WWII, I was pretty excited to get to visit. As we entered the main building, we found out that the first thing we were getting to do was watch a 4D movie, called Beyond All Boundaries. This movie was narrated by Tom Hanks (my favorite actor EVER) and gave us an in depth look into the events that led from the beginning of the war to the end of it. With it being in 4D, the whole experience felt more real. Our seats vibrated when there were explosions, “snow” fell from the ceiling when it was winter time, and lights flashed from every direction. It was an amazing experience that everyone visiting the museum should take advantage of. After the movie, we were able to go out and explore the museum, which was full of items from the war, replicas of aircraft that was used, and tons of information. One particular exhibit that really stood out was Road to Berlin. This gave people a chance to learn about the journey that the Allied Forces took to reach Berlin and finish the war. It had donated items from the families of people who were in the war, videos interviews of WWII veterans talking about different battles they were in, and even some tables with animations of how battles were played out. It was a really interesting and informative exhibit.
We had lunch at the restaurant located in the museum and then moved outside for the jazz band’s performance in the courtyard. We had quite a lot of museum visitors come by and listen to our jazz band, even though it was really hot. When the performance was over, we all had to quickly pack everything back on our bus to get ready for a really fun experience. We made it back to our hotel, changed into nicer clothes, and walked over to the docks to take a dinner cruise on the steamboat Natchez. We were all pretty excited about this ride, since we not only got dinner, but we got to watch a popular New Orleans band, the Dukes of Dixieland, perform on the top deck. Dinner was set up as a buffet line with a selection of delicious food that made quite a large pile-up on my plate. Dessert was a pretty good bread pudding, but nothing close to the one I had at Crescent City Brewhouse. After dinner, we all went up on the top deck and watched the sunset as the Dukes of Dixieland played some fantastic jazz.
Even after the fantastic dinner we had on the steamboat Natchez, some of us were still wanting something to munch on, so we went to this small bar, called Evangeline. It was a neat little bar where people could go to enjoy some good, local craft beer and some pretty tasty food. I got some crab cakes to munch on and they were pretty delicious. They were mostly crab meat, which is what a good crab cake should be and not mostly bread. After sitting around and talking for a good while (long enough to where the bar was closed), we finally made our way back to the hotel and were looking forward to our last day in NOLA.
This being our last day in New Orleans, we checked out of our hotel and loaded all of our stuff on our bus. We still had one more performance to do before we could go do our last minute wandering, shopping, and eating. The jazz band’s last performance was back in front of the steps of Washington Artillery Park. This performance had a lot of unexpected (kind of expected) go on. This was the hottest day of our trip, we had a lot of electrical issues with the sound equipment due to overheating, and nearly everyone got sunburnt/dehydrated (I’m naturally tan, so no burns for me!).
After dealing with all of that, we were ready for a good place to have lunch and rest. A group of us went wandering around for a good spot to eat and came across The Gumbo Shop. This was a pretty cool spot that served up some amazing food. I had Crawfish and Pasta (Penne) in a Tasso (basically spicy bacon) Cream sauce. Usually when I eat something REALLY good, I start chuckling to myself. I was chuckling pretty hard after taking my first bite. That dish was immediately added to the list of some of the best dishes I’ve ever had.
After having a fantastic lunch, our group went to go wander around more and do some souvenir shopping. My friend, Daniel, had us go with him to buy some cigars for his friend back home. The smell of a cigar bar is pretty pungent, to say the least. The guy running the shop, we found out as he was helping us, happened to be a drummer, like Daniel. Eventually, we had to leave him behind in the cigar bar, since they were busy showing each other some tricks. As the rest of us were out looking at other stores to shop at, it all of a sudden started to downpour. Luckily, I love the rain, so this was a welcome sight. The rain also cooled off New Orleans, as it was already pretty hot.
Everyone finally met up at Café Maspero when we were all done shopping. This was going to be our last meal in New Orleans, so we made sure to savor it. Most all of us got Po’ Boys, and just like everything else we’ve eaten in NOLA, they were delicious. When we were done eating, we then walked down the street to stand in front of Crescent City Brewhouse, which was where our bus was going to pick us up. While we were waiting, we were entertained by a small jazz ensemble that was performing inside. Listening to smooth jazz while standing out in the rainy streets of New Orleans was a great last memory as we finally got on our bus to make the 12 hour drive back to Springfield, MO.
(Been to any of the places we went to? Share your experience in the comments!)