Anyone visiting New Orleans knows to hit up Bourbon Street. And if you’ve ever actually made it there, you’ll know that it’s a total shit show every night of the week. Bourbon Street is one of those magical places where the streets smell like piss, there are tons of people around you at all times and everyone is drinking outside, and yet you still somehow feel like a celebrity as people yell down to you from balconies and throw beads your way. I can’t even imagine how crazy this place is around Mardis Gras time, but I have heard stories. Tip for going to Bourbon Street on Mardis Gras – wear shoes you don’t care about, because they will get destroyed in 2.5 seconds of walking.
As you walk down the street, there are people standing outside of every jazz bar paid to solicit you into the bar, whether with drink coupons or just sheer southern charm. If you haven’t done your research, it’s pretty easy to get enticed into nearly any spot on the street. But my recommendation to you is to keep walking until you get about 8 blocks down, where you’ll find Fritzel’s, the oldest jazz pub in New Orleans.
In any other city, Fritzel’s would be considered one of those grimy yet charming hole-in-the-wall joints with a charming French-style, twinkle-lit brick patio in the back. But of course what takes it to that next level is small stage placed smack dab in the middle of everything where jazz players from all over the country congregate and jam together, without any preparation ahead of time. Unlike the other jazz pubs, the music in Fritzel’s is not a performance, it’s an immersive experience. We just happened to be shooed right into the front row, but even three rows back you would still have that trombone right in your face.
Being so small and intimate, Fritzel’s is the place to go to really experience good jazz music. The players often take recommendations from the audience, as they’re mostly just picking songs as they go anyway. And halfway through, there’s an intermission where everyone grabs a drink and you get a chance to sit and chat with some of the players.
My fiance and I sat with the pianist, whose fingers were like fire moving so fast with the music it was hard to look away. He turned out to be a pretty famous jazz player of both the piano and trombone, Richard Scott, who told us all about how he was born in Virginia and started playing piano at age 4, and traveled all over the place to do shows. He was actually only in New Orleans for the weekend and explained to us about how musicians just signed up for different nights of the week if they wanted to play, and then whoever showed up was your band for the night.
“The beauty of jazz,” he said, “is that once you know how to play it, you really can pick it up and play together easily even if you don’t know what song you’re playing.”
I loved hearing about this, and actually took the liberty of looking up “jam session,” only to find out that it originated from jazz music in the 1920s (sorry Phishheads). The term came about when white and black players would congregate after their regular gigs to play the jazz they couldn’t play in their “Paul Whiteman” style bands. When Bing Crosby would join on these sessions, people would say he was “jammin’ the beat” as he clapped on the one and the three beat. Thus, jam sessions were born and became more and more popular, especially in New York during World War II.
And now, after hours in New Orleans, you can find jam sessions happening every night of the week at Fritzel’s. If you want a really good experience of jazz music, I urge you to check it out.