On Friday afternoon, January 27, Linda and I drove to DFW to start what we decided was the very best way to celebrate our 60th birthdays (which happened two months and one month earlier): a weekend in New Orleans. Linda had not ever been, and my three recent visits were quick speaking gigs. Woo hoo! Landed in The Big Easy on a sunny, fresh afternoon, hopped in a taxi, and checked into the way posh Roosevelt Hotel (a favorite of Huey Long, among others). The place had undergone a $160 million renovation and expansion. Wowie. Naturally, I would have opted for more modest digs, but Linda prevailed, and I did admit it was a way special place.
At six we ambled up Bourbon Street (excess to some exponent), and across to Antoine’s, the oldest restaurant in the city, established 1840. I was skeptical, but Linda did a ton of research, and claimed it was not a tourist trap. Indeed not. Food was great, service from Charley superb and friendly (he comped us three cups of soup for imagined lapses). We started with oysters Rockefeller, which were invented there. Soft-shell crabs for the main course. And a nice bottle of Beaujolais. Two-hour dinners are good. Charley proposed a tour of the vast eatery, but we had reserved seats (called “Big Shot passes”) at Preservation Hall, and off we went to St. Peter Street.
Preservation Hall is the seat of traditional jazz in the city where the genre was invented. It is the center, the core, for serious musicians. America is a wonderful mix of cultures and stuff from all over, but jazz is ours, and we felt so fortunate to be there. The place is, well, it’s a dump, but no one comes there for the décor. We collected our Big Shot passes and waited for the 9:15 set. The leader was no less than Leroy Jones (born 1958), an outstanding trumpeter, one of the best in a city of great horn players. We were seated less than three feet from the sax man. Music without amplification, what a concept! I was wearing a broad smile, maybe so big it was goofy, but I didn’t care. We were there. Modern digital recordings are great, but there’s nothing like live music.
A young woman introduced the band, comprising Mr. Jones on horn, plus a sax, clarinet, trombone, piano, bass, and drums. And off they went. It ended too quickly, but not before “Muskrat Ramble,” Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World,” tunes by Ira and George Gershwin and the great Duke Ellington, and some others. After the set, we dropped some offerings in the tip bucket, and I thanked Mr. Jones, adding, “I travel a lot, and I want you to know how much joy you bring when I am far from home and listen to music from your ‘Mo’ Cream from the Crop’ album. It makes me feel closer to the U.S.” We spoke briefly with the other musicians, thanking them. They were kind and modest. It was a totally, totally wonderful experience.
I was up early Saturday, onto a bike in the fitness center. Relaxed in the room, and at 10:30 we walked over to Canal Street, lined up, and stepped back in time on the St. Charles streetcar. The line is the oldest continuously operating street railway system in the world; our car was built in the 1920s. It’s a slow ride (runners use the right of way, and their pace is about on par with the tram!), but relaxing. Windows open, breeze coming through, west into the Garden District. We hopped off at Washington Avenue and walked two blocks toward the river to Commander’s Palace, established 1880. I had last eaten there in 1978.
We were there for the jazz brunch, and during the meal a trio moved through our part of the big restaurant; on the second swing, they honored my request for “Darktown Strutters Ball,” a tune I remember was a favorite of the Armidale (New South Wales) Jazz Band, a fivesome that belted out traditional jazz in the New England pub during my year there in 1981. Five minutes later, the guitarist asked where we were from, and we replied, adding that we were there celebrating our 60th birthdays. That prompted the trio to serenade us with “Dream a Little Dream of Me.” It was so sweet.
After shrimp and grits, and a soufflé for dessert, we ambled across the street to the Lafayette Cemetery, fascinating. Because the water table is so close to the surface, graves are above ground, and the Lafayette was almost entirely family crypts (this is also Spanish custom). Pausing to read the dates of birth and death, you were reminded of how short life could be in the 19th Century. Back to St. Charles, ambling west. We hopped back on the streetcar and rode to the end of the line, then back to the center. Nice! Back at the hotel, we read and I brought this journal up to date.
At six, we headed downstairs to the Sazerac Bar for a drink, then down the street to Mila, a new restaurant that Linda found in her NOLA research. We had sampled tradition, so it was time for a change. Mila served Southern food, but with some updates. I had an excellent starter, a salad topped with smoked redfish. Main course was grilled red snapper with a lobster-crawfish sauce. Dessert was traditional rice pudding sweetened with dates. Oh my, another fabulous meal.
Sunday morning was lazy, but we headed out about 10:15, for a thorough ramble through the French Quarter. Stopped in some great antique shops on Royal Street, then on to Café du Monde, the place famous for chicory coffee and beignets, a donut-like pastry topped with a load of (messy) powdered sugar.
Fortified, we sauntered down Chartres Street, stopping a bit. Grabbed lunch, picked up our luggage, headed to the airport, and flew home. It was a colossal way to celebrate the start of our seventh decade!