Highbrow and lowbrow intermingle at lunch. Galatoire’s, that bastion of haute Creole cuisine, still requires a jacket for evenings and Sundays, even though its patrons must shoulder their way past strip clubs on Bourbon Street that call for only tassels on their dancers. On my tour, we lunch at the Parkway Bakery, which drew a thousand people when it reopened after Katrina. Most came for the roast beef po’ boy, a kind of terrestrial ambrosia.
On the lakeside edge of Tremé, I head for the crossroads of Orleans and Broad, where my mother’s flagship Ruth’s Chris once stood. (She died in 2002, my father in 2003. After Katrina’s flood, the corporation that now owns Ruth’s Chris relocated the restaurant near the Convention Center.) Here, the power elite once clinched their deals over 16-ounce rib-eyes drowned in butter, creamed spinach (my great-uncle Martin’s recipe) and generous martinis. When things got rowdy, Mom would take her servers aside and warn, “Easy on the drinks, girls, easy on the drinks.”
Catty-corner from where the original Ruth’s Chris stood lies the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club, the black Mardi Gras krewe that Louis Armstrong once proudly presided over as king. Across the street at F&F Botanica, my visitors ogle gris-gris jars filled with magic powders.
The Fertel Funky Tour then lands on South Rampart Street, which once housed the pawnshop of my immigrant great-grandparents, Sam and Julia Fertel. In the early decades of the 20th century, their world was an odd mixture—a claustrophobic, Orthodox Jewish mercantile enclave and the epicenter of a musical whirlwind. At the corner of Perdido and Rampart, in 1912, a young boy was arrested for firing a weapon and sent to the Colored Waifs’ Home where he learned to play the cornet. Little Louis Armstrong later bought his first cornet, one door off that same corner, from Jake Fink, whose son Max, a jazz musician of note himself, married my great-aunt Nettie.
At that time, South Rampart Street sat on the edge of Back o’ Town, with hundreds of joints saturated in music, booze and vice. These Uptown musicians drew upon an African musical template and preferred improvisation to written music.
While jazz was aborning Uptown in Back o’ Town and South Rampart, the Downtown black Creole musicians in Tremé, having been trained in the orderly traditions of European classical music, disdained Buddy Bolden’s “ratty” sounds. Separated geographically only by Canal Street, the Uptown and Downtown musicians hailed from different cultures and different worlds. But when Uptown greats such as Armstrong came into their own, Creoles could no longer look down their noses at them. As musicologist Alan Lomax put it, marrying the “hot blasts from black Bolden’s horn” with “searing arpeggios from light [Lorenzo] Tio’s clarinet burned away the false metal of caste prejudices.”
Visitors on the Funky Tour enjoy the fruits of that marriage at the Thursday gig of Kermit Ruffins and the Barbecue Swingers at Vaughan’s, a Downtown dive in Bywater—his band so named because trumpeter Ruffins often brings his grill and serves ribs and red beans during the break. On Fridays, we travel a bit farther Uptown to Snug Harbor to hear the cooler contemporary jazz stylings of pianist Ellis Marsalis, father to four great jazz musicians and teacher to many more.
In such musicians you can hear the jazz marriage of Uptown and Downtown, high-toned and down-low funky that reshaped American and world culture. My visitors are drawn to New Orleans to pay homage to that union. Still heard in joints all over town, that music, at once heavenly and earthy, makes me forever proud to be both from and of New Orleans.
Randy Fertel’s memoir, The Gorilla Man and the Empress of Steak, comes out next month.