Jon Batiste: How To Spend It in New Orleans
I was raised in and around New Orleans and associate the city with my grandparents and my extended family. Growing up, I went to St Augustine, a historically all-black high school known for its rigorous academics and athletics, as well as for the Marching 100, a band that is renowned in the South. I also attended the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA), Louisiana’s premiere arts conservatory. My cousin, Alvin Batiste, was the creative director, and the jazz training is at the level of Juilliard.
The historic intermingling of cultures here encourages creativity: there is no place quite like it. The 1700s are still felt in Congo Square – sacred land – and in the French Quarter with Jackson Square, Bourbon Street and the monuments that are both beautiful and problematic. New Orleans is the ground zero of the cultural explosion that came out of the stain of slavery.
The citizens here have a built-in expectation that we will live through rising tides and climate change. Hurricane Katrina tested our strength with devastating force and then, on the 16th anniversary of that storm, Ida struck the city. The levees held better this time, but we still haven’t done enough to draw attention to global warming and to help the many who have been displaced.
The key to New Orleans is how understated everything is; the unadorned spots are always the best. Verti Marte in the French Quarter is like a convenience store that sells the best po-boys – it’s the French bread that makes the difference. Mahony’s fried shrimp version is great too. Liuzza’s by the Track is another favourite for BBQ shrimp, and I go to Dooky Chase’s for all the New Orleans classics: red beans and rice, étouffée and seafood gumbos. The city is known for beignets – fried dough sprinkled with sugar – and my favourites can be found at Café du Monde on Decatur Street, which is an institution. But Tastee Deli-Donuts in the Seventh Ward is fantastic as well. And then there is Manchu Kitchen – a Chinese restaurant infused with all the flavours of New Orleans. Food is central to experiencing the city and you have to go all in – it isn’t about being healthy.
For great places to stay, I like the Hotel Saint Vincent in the slow-paced Lower Garden District, in part because it was inspired by music: hotelier Liz Lambert came up with the idea on a night out with musician St Vincent. Built in the 1860s, it feels very cool, with a beautiful courtyard and a French-Vietnamese café. The Hotel Monteleone in the heart of the busy French Quarter is a historic property run by the fifth generation of the same family. It has a rich literary past, having hosted Truman Capote, Ernest Hemingway and Tennessee Williams.
Music is a huge focus everywhere but, for me, one of the best venues is Preservation Hall. I love to go here and listen to drummer Shannon Powell, aka “the king of Tremé”, the New Orleans neighbourhood where he grew up. For fantastic jazz and Creole jambalaya, Snug Harbor on Frenchmen Street is the spot, although you can’t go wrong with any of the clubs along that strip. And the New Orleans Jazz Museum in the old US Mint gives a comprehensive look at the birthplace of jazz, as well as live performances.
New Orleans is such a small city that I recommend getting a bike and just riding through the Garden District, along Chartres Street and ending up at the Mississippi River. The whole tour will take you three hours – between breakfast and lunch. Mardi Gras in spring is very particular to New Orleans, and the jazz festival in May is another special time. Founded by my mentor, George Wein, this celebration of music, art and culture is set to take place in spring 2022. And an unmissable holiday moment is the Christmas Eve bonfires on the levee. This is a Cajun tradition where elaborate structures are set ablaze, lighting up the sky and the Mississippi River.
Jon Batiste’s latest album We Are is available on Verve Records