Mardi Gras in New Orleans: Why We Travel for Music

Road Music, Chapter Two

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Mardi Gras in New Orleans: Why We Travel for Music

I used to think I traveled to see musicians, but I was wrong. The real reason I was traveling was to experience the audiences and the geography that make certain music possible. Sooner or later, most musicians will make a tour stop at a city near you, but local audiences and geography can’t go on the road. You have to go to them.

That’s why I visited Hank Williams’ grave and museum in Montgomery, Ala., on this trip. That’s why I returned again to Mardi Gras in New Orleans this year. To be honest, the club bookings during Mardi Gras aren’t that special; it’s just another weekend in Louisiana, nothing like Jazzfest later in the spring. What is special is the audience. The whole population collaborates on a titanic art project that engulfs the city and is so inseparable from it that it can’t be transported elsewhere.

Those listeners influence the city’s music as much as the music influences them. New Orleans music has a syncopated pulse and a contagious joviality because that’s what the locals demand for their dancing and parading. And the geography—not only the humid air and palmettos of the bayous but also the long-and-narrow shotgun houses with their hidden gardens—shape the music as well. This happens all year long, but it reaches a fever pitch during Mardi Gras.

It’s not just the professionals who are getting dressed up to go dancing during carnival; a whole lot of amateurs get dressed up too and even those who show up at the parades in civilian clothes are soon draped in plastic beads and medallions, transforming them from observers to participants.

When the high school and college marching bands come down the street, gold tubas and trumpet glinting in the sun, pumping out the melody of “When the Saints Go Marching In” or “Mardi Gras in New Orleans,” it’s not the 19-year-old drummer that you’ve come to see but rather the give-and-take between the stoic musicians in their 19th-century uniforms and the alcohol-relaxed onlookers cheering them on and singing along.

And when the Endymion Parade’s two-story parade floats come bobbing down Orleans Avenue, it’s not Flo Rida or the other celebrities perched on the bow that are interesting, but rather the plastic-masked volunteers teasing the beseeching crowds below by dangling an especially fancy string of plastic beads, and the families on the curb raising their arms, opening and closing their hands like mouths as they shout, “Throw me something, Mister!”

After Saturday’s parade, we got up early on Sunday and drove down to the St. Charles Avenue Baptist Church. There the grandmaster of traditional jazz clarinet, Dr. Michael White, was leading the Original Liberty Jazz Band, a septet of elderly gentlemen, including 92-year-old pianist Lawrence Cotton. You can hear White’s combo in Jazz at Lincoln Center or other venues around the country, but it will never feel like it did that morning in the church.

The pews were filled with New Orleanians who understand how old hymns can become swinging jazz numbers—and how a Mardi Gras celebration can become a religious service. You don’t travel this far to see White; you travel to witness this congregation responding to White and inspiring him in turn. When the pastor, Elizabeth Mangham Lott, referred to the previous day’s parades and horrendous traffic accident, she said, “Carnival reflects life, both the good and bad,” everyone nodded or added “Amen.”

Michael White (Courtesy Basin Street Records)

After the service, in the church basement, we shared coffee and king cake, the traditional Mardi Gras dessert (if you get the plastic baby in your slice, you have to buy the king cake next year). The musicians mixed with the crowd as if they were collaborators—as indeed they were.

Afterwards we walked across Audubon Park, a slice of swampy greenery flanking a snaking bayou full of white ibises, whistling ducks and great egrets, a reminder of the geography that gives New Orleans its character. The houses are grand mansions on the broad boulevards that radiate like spokes on a fan through the city. The houses are narrow, wooden shotguns on the pot-holed smaller streets that fill in the gaps between the boulevard spokes. As a result, the rich are never very far from the poor, and that too flavors the culture. You’re never too wealthy to get funky and never to poor to put on airs.

On the other side of the park, the Thoth Parade was in full swing. Mardi Gras is often caricatured by outsiders as a bunch of drunken frat boys in the French Quarter screaming, “Show your tits.” That does exist, but it’s a small, unrepresentative part of the celebration. In the Uptown neighborhood where Thoth gets started, families have attached rubber wheels and wooden seats to the tops of step ladders. They roll the ladders up to a good spot on the “neutral ground” (New Orleanese for median strip), set them up and perch a young child on top as a “bead magnet.” It never fails to work as the maskers on the floats aim the best throws in that direction. Beneath the ladders, multiple generations of families and neighbors gather to chat and trade throws.

New Orleans reminds us that there’s a difference between standards and folk songs. A standard is a fondly remembered older song that you’re eager to hear again. A folk song is one that is so deeply ingrained that you’re eager to sing it yourself. When a parade band breaks into “When the Saints Go Marching In,” for example, or Professor Longhair’s “Mardi Gras in New Orleans,” the onlookers spontaneously break into singing, as if the tune belonged to them as much as the band.

On Sunday night, we traveled down to the Marigny neighborhood to see funk organist John “Papa” Gros and his band backing up the Mardi Gras Indian chief, Monk Boudreaux, at the d.b.a. club. The Indians are another essential element in the city’s collaborative art project. African-American families spend month sewing colorful beads and colorful plumes into elaborate costumes that celebrate the American Indians who welcomed runaway slaves in the nearby swamps.

Boudreaux’s Golden Eagles is one of the city’s oldest tribes, and the wizened, 77-year-old leader knows all the musical chants that the Indians sing as they prowl the streets on Carnival Day. Dressed in a white costume with blue borders around the beaded portraits of Indians dancing with their tomahawks, Boudreaux led the musicians and the crowded dance floor in the call-and-response chants. Shaking his tambourine, he took the old nursery rhyme “Shoo Fly, Don’t Bother Me,” for example, and improvised new verses round the refrain, implying that the city’s authorities and injustices didn’t disturb him any more than a housefly might. And we all sang along in agreement.

Throughout the month of March, Geoffrey Himes will be posting entries from his ongoing travelogue, Road Music

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