By Annie Fu
The same white-haired musician, Larry Stoops, sings standard on Bourbon Street every night (since 1972). His sound seeps into whomever will listen, first indulging them in ragtime, then soothing them near-comatose with blues. Sometimes he takes requests, taking shape as Armstrong, Fitzgerald, Cole… other times it runs past closing and turns to talk to an unfamiliar face. For the most part, these details about Larry “Steamboat Willie” Stoops and his nightly performance make no difference to the heart of New Orleans day to day, but my dear friend Dara and I relished them. We noticed them, and we sunk deep into a ceremonial routine that brought us into the same rainy courtyard every night during our week-long trip to the holy land last spring.
The city makes for some frustratingly contradictory mental notes: nurtures a sophisticated, iconic musical history, yet holds little to no barriers of entry into a robust amateur street scene; saunters through streets with a bottle of absinthe dated to antiquity in one hand and a two-foot, twisty-strawed margarita in the other; slings plastic pearls and cheap confetti upon the shoulders of its French colonial balconies (a Mardi Gras thing). Each component harbors authenticity at its core but will run your pockets dry if you trust it enough. And within all this orderly chaos, locals quietly manage to inject a nightly routine steeped in years of tradition with an adaptability that keeps its culture from falling behind in an increasingly technological age. In other words, we have a lot to learn from New Orleans and its soft-singing Larrys. Every part of Stoops’ nightly performance bears testament to the cultural vibration of a city known as The Big Easy, and its winding roots all trace back to one unifying art form: jazz.
In New Orleans, jazz and its several subgenres are irrevocably pressed into a compact grid of cobblestone streets. Down the city’s pedestrian alleyways of Bourbon, Canal, and others, life constantly flows through drink, dance, and music. This ubiquity of musical and physical performance culminates in the feeling of centuries of creation inevitably rubbing off on the average passerby. You wake up for a cheap coffee and a beignet at the bright hour of 7 a.m. You pass by two trumpeters and a saxophonist on the way. Suddenly, you have a story to tell your friend and a melody stuck in your head for the rest of the day. Jazz specifically took root in the city by this very pattern: African-Americans, Cajuns, Creoles, the French, and a multitude of others brought influences from their respective cultures and together created a new sound that didn’t yet have a name. The sound was lovingly wild; it spilled jubilance from raw, molten improvisation; it carried something particularly freeing in its refusal to stick to any previously defined boundaries.
By the 19th century, these musically forged bonds gained a permanence that spread beyond law and policy. The waves of racial segregation affecting cross-racial collaboration throughout the rest of America simply prompted New Orleans to just play louder. Neighborhood settlement patterns that predated segregation ensured that diverse musical performance remained possible and through the megaphonic commotion of marching bands and bandwagons, jazz shoved aside the idea of “separate but equal” and pulled people outside into the streets instead. By refusing to take solid shape and insisting its doors stay wide open, nobody could tell jazz where to be and what to sound like: the sound remained steadfastly committed only to expressing life’s absurdity and the diversity of the people shaping it. At any point during the genre’s peak, to not “buy into jazz” was to silently scream to the times that you were growing old. It meant you were forgetting your vicariousness, your spontaneity, and your warm contradiction.
I thought about the white-haired Larry Stoops again the other day as I stared at an unrisen CTB bagel, questioning why I paid nine dollars for what was essentially a really thick, hole-punched cracker in Ithaca but two dollar for a plate of hot, fluffy beignets in New Orleans. It all begs the question of simplicity. Bourbon Street remains alive at any hour, inviting people from all walks of life while unabashedly housing only a few types of establishments: bars, oyster bars and nude bars. Jazz lives within all of these, and stands on every other street corner of New Orleans because people like Steamboat Willie refuse to let it die. They hold no motive outside of celebrating life in its various audible, corporal and ingestible forms and embracing all the contradictions inherent in doing so. Looking at his life as a whole, it reads quickly and easily. He has some favorite jazz standards. He has one hat. He likes it when people snap after his sets. He doesn’t need much to build a life that reaches far, wide, and touches people deeply. I’m starting to think I don’t need all that much, either.