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Conventional wisdom has it that jazz began in New Orleans roughly 100 years ago.That it traveled up the Mississippi, passed through Chicago, then headed east to New York, where it currently lives in a penthouse overlooking Central Park. That’s the Jazz at Lincoln Center version of the story, compliments of Wynton Marsalis. I much prefer Woody Allen’s explanation: Slaves came to our shores 200 years ago and brought their record collections with them. Rim shot, please….


Try testing this material on 34 knowledgeable Jazz.FM91 fans en route to NOLA, destination for the station's most recent Safari, and you’ll hear as many groans as laughs. It’s a hip crowd these jazzers, too wise to suffer fools gladly, seeking only the thrills and chills that New Orleans and its attendant mythology can provide - abundant music, food, spirits and birthright attitude. Add a little voodoo to the mix and you find a perfect storm for a weekend get-away.

This trip’s goal, as ever, was to make every minute count. We hit the ground running with a dinner at Emeril Lagasse’s celebrated restaurant, NOLA, situated in the heart of the French Quarter. There we broke bread, broke the ice and fortified ourselves for a whirlwind schedule of regional delights.

Our first official event was a visit to Snugg Harbor. On our last outing to NOLA we sat at the feet of pianist and guru, educator Ellis Marsalis. This time around it was Christian Scott, a next generation trumpeter and native son (nephew of saxophonist Donald Harrison), who makes a big impression in a hurry. His style is forthright, declamatory, bearing the stamp (musically, visually) of Miles Davis and Freddie Hubbard. There’s no shortage of bravado in his pose. He offered a strong dose of post-bop modernism, which suited the occasion fine.

Outside the club an unscheduled moment captured my imagination. A street trio named The Whiskeyhickon Boys -  showcasing mandolin, bass and percussion - married jug band music, funk, rap and syncopated rhythms into sidewalk theater that had passers-by taking notice.  (I dug the lead singer's mounted kazoo, hung from his neck like a harmonica, Dylan-style.) Turns out these musicians are snowbirds from Philly - station leader Ross Porter coaxed the admission out of them - who make a nice living passing the hat. Tunes from disparate musics don’t scare them. These guys are fearless and good.

Next stop was Preservation Hall, a dependable jazz spot for 50 years, housed in a building dating from 1750. The room - spare, unadorned, lacking modern amenities - feels like a temple. Great trad musicians have passed through the ranks of the Hall band (including George Lewis and the Humphrey brothers); the current roster includes Freddie Lonzo, a first-call trombonist who growls out the history and spirit of NOLA every time he blows.

We were grooving high, yet determined to conclude things with one more authentic New Orleans experience. Thanks to station social director Jaymz Bee we found it - a funky dive bar in Treme named Ooh Poo Pah Doo, with a house band that featured Guitar Slim Jr., and James Andrews, brother of Trombone Shorty. Canned brew was the joint’s beverage of choice, a fact made clear by a house regular who hustled beers off of me all night. His rap was so fine, the presentation so, er, irresistible, I kept buying. When he turned his attention elsewhere, I felt neglected.

The tears didn’t last long. The sight of Bee doing a fais do-do with a local made things right, as did our hand-waving gang doing a second line sashay around the bar. By the time Bee passed the hat, and Andrews pledged his allegiance to the station (in a recorded ID captured by mother coordinator Jess Frohman), NOLA’s real-deal life-force was pulsing though our veins. Did we really have to go?

A perfect set-up for the next morning’s Gospel Brunch at the House of Blues. Linda Wright and the Kirk Franklin players took one look at this crew and knew we needed a whole lot of redemption. They sanctified us in a musical revue that was equal parts uplifting and gut-busting. While some sought the Lord, I chased down eggs, bacon, grits and biscuits. Religion is such a personal choice.

The rest of Sunday was my day of rest. Others gleefully ignored the commandment. As the weekend concluded, it became clear that this visit to New Orleans tested both endurance and indulgence - tested the love of jazz, too. It’s hard to think of another organized hang that delves deep into a region’s cultural DNA and makes the pickin’ easy. Big Easy, in this case.

Maybe on the next NOLA Safari we’ll replicate that birth-of-jazz thing. We’ll follow the trail up the Mississippi to Chicago to New York, winding our way to a penthouse overlooking Central Park. Nothing needed but the spirit of adventure. Unless, of course, there’s a record collection someone wants to bring.

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