When I got to the Intercontinental Hotel, the Cutting Edged NOLA Keynote Speech was going on, followed by a legal panel about sports and entertainment law. At the end of that, I headed out to the lakefront and ate dinner at Landry’s Seafood House. Even though Landry’s is a chain, it is the restaurant nearest to Lake Pontchartrain and has the best view of the lake, and the food was very good, at least on this particular day.
As I headed back toward the CBD, I drove through the Central City area, and with the weather blazing hot, when I saw a snow-cone sign on Washington Avenue, I took a detour onto the side street and found a snowball stand called The Red Rooster. While New Orleans people are familiar with snowballs, I need to point out that New Orleans-style snowballs are quite different from the snow cones that are sold elsewhere across the country. Not only are the flavors different, but so is the ice, which at the better snowball stands is shaved. This particular stand also serves food, and has a shrimp po-boy on the menu that I will have to try on a future visit. The street where the stand is located looked familiar to me, and might have been the location where I visited Eddie’s 3-Way Records back in the 1980’s. I recall that it was on a side street off of Washington Avenue, that it was a block from a housing project (likely the Magnolia Projects), and that there was a snowball stand nearby that served po-boys. Further down in Central City, I came to a number of inspirational murals, which are common in New Orleans. One listed the Zulu Nation Laws of Success, as well as a number of famous men and women and was attributed to the Central City Art Project. Another one stated “Be The Change You Seek.” One of the things I love about New Orleans is the prevalence of public art, official and unofficial, even in the roughest neighborhoods.
Holly Grove (or Hollygrove) is a neighborhood of New Orleans to the west of the intersection of Earhart Boulevard and Carrollton Avenue, in the historic 17th Ward of New Orleans. It’s not a neighborhood I knew much about, aside from mentions in New Orleans rap songs, so after breakfast at Riccobono’s Panola Street Cafe, I headed into the area to see what I could see. Like many other neighborhoods of New Orleans, the main thing I noticed was little neighborhood bars, grills and lounges on street corners. These places are everywhere in New Orleans, and often are headquarters for various social aid and pleasure clubs, or for the gangs of Black Indians that parade during Mardi Gras season. But I also came upon an historic old theatre called the Ashton, and several nearby historic business buildings in need of restoration. Altogether, while most of the houses seem to be in good condition, it appears that commercial buildings in Holly Grove haven’t fared as well.
Vaughan’s is an out-of-the-way neighborhood bar in the Bywater neighborhood just across the Industrial Canal from the Lower 9th Ward, and the last time I was there, the great Kermit Ruffins himself was playing on a Thursday night to a standing room only crowd. Ruffins gave up that gig not long after, and Vaughan’s has tried a succession of different bands and groups since then on Thursdays, which is the only night that the bar features live music, but Ruffins’ shoes are hard to fill. However, Travis “Trumpet Black” Hill, though hardly as well-known as Ruffins, is a brilliantly-gifted trumpet player with the mastery of his instrument and the self-assuredness to attempt to fill the slot, and does a good job at it, ably backed by his band, known as the Heart Attack. Hill’s repertoire is younger and less traditional than Kermit’s, but in some ways, that’s a good thing. After my arrival, his first set included a funked-out version of the brass band standard “Always There”, and a far more traditional reading of the classic “Backatown Blues”. Such versatility should stand Hill in good stead, and I suspect we’ll be hearing far more from him going forward. As for Vaughan’s, unsuspecting tourists should not be fooled by the signs out front. The bar does not offer po-boys, although they do have red beans and rice on Thursdays.
My first stop was at the jazz showcase of Cutting Edge NOLA, which was going on at Sweet Lorraine’s Jazz Club on North Claiborne Avenue, a neighborhood venue that also serves as headquarters for the social aid and pleasure club known as the Black Men of Labor, whose logo is prominently displayed on the premises. Though not as well known as the city’s other jazz club, Snug Harbor, Sweet Lorraine’s proved to be a beautiful and spacious club for live music, with a large stage and a beautiful grand piano. The band that was performing was that of Jairus Daigle from Lake Charles, a young jazz violinist with two albums under his belt already who is about to head to the Berklee School of Music in Boston this fall. Many of his band members are family members, as the Daigle family name is well-known in Lake Charles for jazz, soul and funk. Although the jazz style Jairus performed was fusion and contemporary jazz rather than traditional, straight ahead jazz, I was still very impressed by the young man’s facile mastery of the violin.
The kickoff party for this year’s Cutting Edge NOLA Music Business Conference took place in the upstairs Ramp Room of the Little Gem Saloon at South Rampart and Poydras in the CBD of New Orleans. After a historical presentation about New Orleans’ community radio station WWOZ, there was a guitar summit sponsored by T-watt amplifiers, co-hosted by blues guitarists Jonathan “Boogie” Davenport and Guitar Slim Jr. Downstairs in the restaurant, a straight ahead jazz trio was playing, featuring the vocalist Nayo Jones. But Cutting Edge showcases were also going on at other venues in the city simultaneously, so after hanging out at the Little Gem for about an hour, I decided to head to other venues.
After the late afternoon listening session at Cutting Edge NOLA, I was in the mood for a burger, and after looking at all the various burger options, I decided to try Charcoal’s Gourmet Burger Bar uptown on Magazine Street. Charcoal’s is a large two-story restaurant on Magazine at Jackson, with a downstairs that seems to be a to-go location, and an upstairs bar for the dine-in customers. The upstairs bar also has balconies on its Magazine and Jackson Street sides, but the late afternoon had seen a line of thunderstorms, so everything was wet outside. The menu at Charcoal’s is interesting, and offers a choice between a number of predesigned specialty burgers, or the option to build your own . Meat choices include elk, antelope, turkey, bison, akaushi, shrimp, and even a vegetable burger for those who don’t want meat. There are also choices of cheeses, other toppings, Benton’s bacon, and freshly cut french fries. Prices are not cheap, but the charming space, attentive service and unparalleled burger options make Charcoal’s worth the price.
Charcoal’s Gourmet Burger Bar
2200 Magazine St
New Orleans, LA 70103
For 22 years, the Cutting Edge Music Business Conference has been going on in New Orleans, giving new artists and musicians an opportunity to showcase their music, and giving music industry professionals a chance to network and adjust to changes in technology and the climate of our industry. The first day was largely registration and panels, including a demo listening session where I was one of the judges. I was especially impressed by Jackson, Mississippi southern roots rocker Jason Daniels, whose song “You’re an Angel” had a definitive New Orleans aura, as well as the world-music/indie fusion group Pans Permia, from Miami, Florida who opted to perform an acoustic song for us rather than merely play a CD.
After breakfast at the Who Dat Coffee Cafe, I was already in the general vicinity of the Lower 9th Ward, so I decided to drive around that area and see if there was anything worthy of being photographed, and actually there was a lot. Of course, the Lower 9th Ward had been devastated by the flooding of Hurricane Katrina. Cut off from the rest of New Orleans by the Industrial Canal, the neighborhood is surrounded by water on three sides, and for many years was the home of two notorious housing projects, the Florida Projects and the Desire Projects, the latter of which was once said to be the largest public housing project in America. Both projects were wrecked by Katrina, and neither were rebuilt, at least not as housing projects. Mixed income developments are being built on the site. Business areas in the northern portion of the neighborhood were also devastated, and since people have not returned in large numbers, none of these shopping centers have been rebuilt. They are still ruins, covered with gang graffiti. But nearby, at a playground called Sampson Park, I came upon a beautiful mural done by something called “Project Future for the Youth”, containing a lot of wonderful and inspiring slogans and quotes, presumably painted and conceived by young people from the neighborhood, possibly even before the storm. The various tiles within the mural call for peace and an end to violence, and emphasize brotherhood, peace and even music. One section of the mural states, poignantly, “I know they watching…Ancestors watching.” Perhaps nothing more accurately sums up the unique culture of New Orleans, particularly the city’s Black neighborhoods…traditions that have died out in many other cities last years longer in New Orleans, perhaps because the young people know they are being watched by those who have gone on before.
In another part of the neighborhood was an attractively colorful building which proved to be a bike shop. All kids love bikes, but bikes are not just for kids in New Orleans, which is a bike-friendly city in the extreme. Young people in inner-city neighborhoods even have customized bikes, sometimes rigged with lighting and sound systems.
Down on Claiborne Avenue, I came across a tire shop that has evidently had a problem with neighborhood crime, and decided to deal with it through a blunt sign: “No cat selling, No crack selling, No loitering…NOPD Will Be Called.” It’s hard to imagine anyone trying to sell drugs or love at the neighborhood tire shop, but evidently someone did. Nearby, a recently poured sidewalk gave a group of 9th Ward kids an opportunity to immortalize their names in concrete. They listed their names along with their ward, and the designation “The Crew”. Here’s hoping that they and their peers in the 9th Ward have a bright future ahead.
The To Be Continued Brass Band (or TBC Brass Band) plays every Wednesday at Celebration Hall on St. Bernard Avenue in the Seventh Ward of New Orleans, but their performance on Wednesday August 20 was special, as it coincided with the birthday of the band’s deceased saxophone player Brandon Franklin. Any TBC performance is spirited, but this night was especially significant, and they opened with a traditional reading of “Just Over In The Glory Land” as a tribute. It was a steamy hot night, the musicians covered with sweat by the second tune, but nothing stopped the second-liners and buckjumpers on the dance floor in front of the stage. Aside from members of another local brass band (without instruments) talking smack during the intermission, it was another one of those memorable New Orleans nights.