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The Ultimate Jazz Experience

Posted by Rich Mancini on 11/21/2014
Posted in: Tauck’s Travelogue
Tags: Food, Ken Burns, Museums, Tauck Events, Jazz, New Orleans

louis armstrong posterLouis Armstrong once said, “Every time I close my eyes blowing that trumpet of mine – I look right in the heart of good old New Orleans... It has given me something to live for.” Although he hit it big in Chicago in the 1920s and later became a legend throughout the world, Armstrong was a New Orleans native. To me, “Satchmo” was jazz… and there’s no other place on Earth that pulsates with this uniquely American music quite like his – and its – hometown.

preservation hallAlthough a rock ‘n roller by chronology and a blues fan by inclination, I’ve been a jazz lover, too, since discovering big-band swing as a kid in the ‘70s, after stumbling upon my dad’s old 78-rpm records from the ‘40s. So you can imagine what an amazing experience it was for a fan like me to explore the music’s history and development right where much of it took place, in its (and Satchmo’s) birthplace – visiting places like Basin Street Station and hearing stories of young jazz pioneers cutting their teeth in the French Quarter and the Storyville red-light district… exploring jazz archives and collections with experts and historians, and viewing rare artefacts and instruments once played by the greats… and perhaps best of all, listening to live jazz in venues throughout the “Big Easy,” from legendary Preservation Hall off Bourbon Street to aboard a steamboat on the Mississippi. All stuff that most of us don’t have an opportunity to do every day.

ken burns 2Now, that was just part of what I experienced on The Tauck Jazz Event a few years ago. During a wonderful 4-night stay at The Ritz-Carlton, New Orleans, we celebrated jazz in its hometown – including a gala evening at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA), where we listened as filmmaker Ken Burns (who crafted the event with Tauck, inspired by his film Jazz) delivered a stirring keynote address. That was followed by an opportunity to meet Ken, then a terrific (and exclusive) performance by pianist and educator Ellis Marsalis (renowned as the patriarch of America’s “First Family of Jazz"; his sons Branford, Wynton, Delfeayo and Jason, all jazz musicians of note, are alumni of NOCCA, a world-class professional arts training center established in 1973). It was a pretty unforgettable night!

donald harrison and mardi gras indiansBut the entire Event (which returns to the Crescent City, March 25 – 29, 2015), was like that… as each day offered a combination of sightseeing and exclusive experiences designed to wow us…. and indeed they did! For example, on one day, we encountered jazz at every turn of our journey through the French Quarter – from a special tour with a Louisiana State Museum music historian at the landmark Cabildo... to a rare private performance at one of the great shrines of traditional jazz, Preservation Hall, in the heart of the Quarter... to a delectable jazz brunch at the Court of Two Sisters (with live music, of course)… to yet another private performance – this time by saxophonist, composer and singer Donald Harrison (“The King of Nouveau Swing,” and another NOCCA alumnus), along with the Congo Nation Mardi Gras Indians. And that was all in one day…

museumOn yet another day, we explored more places where the “gumbo” that is jazz was blended… including Basin Street Station, where local guides tell tales of young Armstrong and fellow New Orleanians Sidney Bechet and “Jelly Roll” Morton, playing in the “sporting houses” (brothels) of Storyville and along Basin Street… and historic St. Louis Cemetery #1 – which has plenty of stories of its own to tell – where we learned a thing or two about the city’s iconic jazz funerals and the traditions of the “second line.”

After a stroll through the Garden District and a lunch stop in one of Satchmo’s old neighborhoods, we plunged even further into jazz history – first, with a delightful presentation by a Tulane University jazz historian and archivist (a drummer himself)… then, at the New Orleans Jazz National Park’s performance space at the Old U.S. Mint, where a Louisiana State Museum curator showed us a collection of historic instruments that are akin to the Holy Grail for jazz fans – including Sidney Bechet’s sax, a trumpet played by Dizzy Gillespie, even the cornet that Satchmo learned to play on – seriously!

Structured around jazz-themed sightseeing tracks and activities that small groups of guests experience on different days, the Event did offer opportunities for appropriately jazz-like improvisation, too – as in the case of one college professor who, leading a group of jazz scholars and aficionados from his university’s community, organised and hosted an entertaining presentation on Louis Armstrong’s life and career that made our enjoyment of the Event all the richer… and that’s something you just can’t buy.

For me, one of the coolest things about The Tauck Jazz Event was Ken Burns’s keynote address – in which he spoke of his own experience of jazz and its unique position in American culture – and the opportunity to meet and talk with him. When I was working after college in a film library in the early ‘80s, Ken’s early documentaries, including Brooklyn Bridge and The Shakers, were among the 16-millimeter films I frequently projected (and often repaired), so I’ve been a fan of his work from the beginning. When we chatted briefly, he recalled schlepping around those projectors and reels of film for screenings in those pre-video days… connecting on a personal level, as he so often does when meeting and speaking with our guests.

ellis marsalis 2At NOCCA, Ken’s address was followed by a memorable performance by jazz patriarch Ellis Marsalis on piano, accompanied by a group of talented young players from the ranks of NOCCA students and alumni. Along with the performances by Marsalis and Donald Harrison, there was much more live jazz to enjoy throughout the Event, of course… by folks ranging from former college All-American and NFL player Bruce “Sunpie” Barnes and his band, the Louisiana Sunspots (we also enjoyed Sunpie’s jazz demonstration for visitors at New Orleans Jazz National Park, where he is an NPS ranger), to Doreen’s Jazz New Orleans and the Dukes of Dixieland aboard our farewell cruise on the steamboat Natchez on the Mississippi. (And that doesn’t include all the jazz we saw and heard being freely played on the streets of the French Quarter, either!)

We also had opportunities to explore other aspects of New Orleans’ past, present and future… from stories of survival in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in the Lower Ninth Ward and Tremé – America’s oldest neighborhood of “free people of color” – with a talk by an environmental architect… to some of the city’s richest cultural legacies at the Backstreet Cultural Museum and St. Augustine Catholic Church, and drives through Faubourg Marigny and Frenchmen Street, home to a thriving jazz scene of its own today.

food 2And then, there was the food. New Orleans is known for its rich mix of cuisines and cultures, of course, but our Event featured included meals at some of the city’s finest (and most famous) restaurants… such as Arnaud’s, Commanders’ Palace and the Court of Two Sisters. And we had time to head out and make some culinary discoveries on our own, too, from fresh oysters and étouffée to beignets and coffee by the river.

It’s hard to stop talking (or writing) about the joy of discovering the Crescent City and celebrating its jazz legacy on this one-of-a-kind Tauck Event. I just can’t think of a better way to experience New Orleans and all it has to offer… and all that jazz, too.

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