|The New Orleans French Quarter Festival
by Jim McGee
When you think about New Orleans a couple of stereotypes immediately come to mind; food, music, partying, and chefs that go "Bam!". With only a four day weekend at my disposal I decided that the best way to squeeze in all four would be the annual French Quarter Festival.
The French Quarter Festival is the little brother to the more popular Jazz Fest, and while Jazz Fest features more well known national musicians, French Quarter Festival is the province of the local talent.
We stayed in a French hotel at the edge of the Quarter and as you stroll it's streets it becomes quickly evident that this city marches to it's own unique beat. It's a flavorful gumbo of cultures with French, Caribbean, African, American, English, and European elements cooked together into a spicy rue.
During the festival there are bands on many of the corners as you stroll the streets. And stroll you do. There are so many interesting shops and galleries that there is no moving quickly. Glance down an alley and you'll see impromptu outdoor art galleries, beautiful gardens, statues, and fountains. And those musicians on the street corners - they'll blow you away. We heard everything from hillbilly, to brass, to jazz.
When we reached Jackson square another pleasant surprise awaited. Yet another great jazz band on stage and a square lined with booths from dozens of New Orleans restaurants, each featuring two or three of that restaurant's signature dishes. After eating three days worth of food we waddled over to the famous Cafe du Monde for some of their own signature coffee and a table to stretch out and watch the world go by.
Strolling back through the Quarter that evening we found a place transformed. The action is on Bourbon Street.
Bourbon Street parties all night and is justified in it's rocking raucous reputation. In the alleyways between the bars are frozen drink stands selling hurricanes and daiquiris right on the street. At night Bourbon is closed to traffic and you can walk outdoors from bar to bar with a drink in your hand.
At night Bourbon Street is strictly an adult playground, with bars, strip clubs, drink stands, and cheap souvenir shops dominating the landscape. As midnight approaches Bourbon Street is kicking into high gear fueled on alcohol, tourists, and lowered inhibitions. The police are now cracking down on the tradition but you still may see women on Bourbon street earning beads in the time honored fashion - by exposing themselves to guys on the balconies of the bars. For the tourists it seems that Bourbon is the perfect place to let loose because no one knows you.
But let's not forget the music. As I strolled from bar to bar it seemed that the music only got better, including an incredible show by Ellis Marsalis. And you can't come to New Orleans and not see the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. Big and brassy these guys put on a hell of a show several times a night. A big sign says no cameras, but I asked nicely and promised not to use a flash and was greeted with a big smile and told to go ahead in. Bring a fast lens for this show though as the light is very low in there.
Being a photographer on assignment requires that you're up and out with the early morning light, but even through hazy low clouds and my sun glasses it seemed that the sun was unusually harsh the next morning (couldn't have had anything to do with all those hurricanes and lack of sleep the night before). But in the early morning the Quarter shows you yet another face.
On Bourbon Street the crowds of the previous day and evening are gone. The gutters are filled with the flotsam and jetsam left behind by the evenings revelers. In front of the restaurants and bars weary employees hose down sidewalks and drag out huge trash cans filled to over flowing for the huge trash trucks trundling down the streets. Off of Bourbon we wander down to a little coffee shop on Pirate's Alley for some strong chicory coffee and a croissant. Several artists are setting up a huge display of paintings for sale in the adjacent cobblestone alleyway. The French flags hanging from the shop only add to the European feeling and it feels good to drop the camera bag and sit in the shade and watch the world go by. So good in fact that this little shop will become a "morning tradition" for the few days that we are here.
For those couple of days life consists of coffee in the morning at this little outdoor cafe, afternoons wandering varied, and often phenomenal galleries and antique shops of the Quarter, and nights partying on Bourbon. Meals are incredible. We ask locals about their favorite spots and we never go wrong. I can gladly say that New Orleans epicurean reputation is well earned - as is Mr. Bam's (Emeril Legasse). His Nolo restaurant severed up an incredible meal that stood out among many incredible meals.
All too soon it was time to get back on an airplane, but New Orleans has been added to my short list of favorite cities. I'll return to explore the many things that I'm sure were missed in the Quarter and to venture out and see the rest of this beautiful city.
This year the French Quarter Festival is April 20th to April 22nd. You can go to http://www.fqfestivals.org/ for more information. You won't be disappointed. Jazz Fest runs from April 27th thru May 6th.
The French Quarter Festival is the little brother to the more popular Jazz Fest,
It's justified in it's rocking raucous reputation
New Orleans has been added to my short list of favorite cities
text and photography copyright © 2001 Vivid Light Publishing