Non-Fiction

Jazz ► Frenchmen Street

A crowd has already developed on two corners of the intersection to watch the band play their brass instruments and drums under the terrace of what looks like an abandoned building. We try not to block the street and press ourselves to a parked car as close as we can get to the band. An older black woman trots in her heals back and forth in the middle of the road. Her movement is simple. Her hips and her legs rotate forward, subtly to the beat. She blows kisses at the honking vehicles struggling to get by. She picks up a large umbrella with $1 and $5 painted on the black and white vinyl patches and spins it like a parasol over her head. A driver creeps closer and closer to her, at which point she holds the umbrella out in front of her, teasing him like a lion tamer teases his beast with a chair and a whip, all the while maintaining her sultry trot. A white girl begins to dance with her in the road, jauntily moving her body and swinging her fragile frame in front of cars. The trumpets and tubas and French horns call the people into the street, and we move in closer to join the thickening audience. An afroed woman holding a tambourine, who seems to appear from no direction at all, walks up to the band and drops her bag to devote her rattling hand to the music, joining in perfectly with the boisterous tune the players have struck. A police car arrives flashing its lights and for a moment the music stops. The officer gets out of the car and approaches the band to a chorus of BOOOs, and a local yells arrogantly from the edge of the crowd, “On the sidewalk! Get on the sidewalk people!” She rants at anyone close enough to listen. “Stupid tourists, they get in the street and the police get called because they’re blocking traffic. They don’t shut down Frenchmen like they do Bourbon. Get on the sidewalks!” “People complainin’?” someone says, taking a drag from her cigarette. “This is fucking New Orleans and people complainin’. Jeez.” The umbrella lady slides her hand under the officer’s arm and escorts him back to his car, rubbing on his chest and shoulder affectionately, cooing at him to let the party continue. And as the coaxed man gets back into his vehicle, she touches his cheek and blows kisses at him until he’s driven away. People cheer and the band starts back up, this time to even more enthusiasm and a now fearless crowd, conquering the street with their smiles and bodies and drinks. Local kids, sixteen tops, stand against a wall behind the band, drinking their beers. Black kids, white kids, locals, and tourists press in toward the brass players, agents of sound. Sound. Women balancing on their heels adopt the beat and let their asses roll as they strut their stuff in the crowd, for no man, but for themselves and for the music. And older man in business attire, still wearing his nametag from some conference or another, pulls a woman to the front and center and begins to spin her around before pulling her close. A smacked out hipster tosses his shirt aside and with an enlightened smile, big enough to swallow you whole, sweats until his skin is golden and, like a snake, writhes and dances continually upward for the enchanters and their hypnotized crowd. It’s daylight here. People a street over have no idea that smiles are radiating sunshine and warmth here on Frenchmen. The band and these people have come together to perform and to dance and to pound out, with their feet and the deep breaths exhaled into the brass, a street corner’s worth of heaven.

 

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