By Rebecca Borman
One of my favorite cities in the world is New Orleans, and there’s no better time to visit than during the French Quarter Music Festival, which takes place in the spring, usually several weeks before the better-known Jazz Fest. While Jazz Fest always boasts an all-star lineup of national musicians, FQF focuses on local talent, and, to me, that makes it more fun. Oh, and the fact that on Saturday and Sunday, there are 23 stages to choose from and over 100 food offerings from “The World’s Largest Jazz Brunch.”
It had been five years since my last FQF, so this year I decided to make the trip. I considered going by myself, because I’m familiar with New Orleans and the Festival; I knew I could navigate it with no problems. But, it seemed like it would be more fun to have a group, so I decided to go with a Road Scholar group. These were some very good decisions!
The tour would begin with a group meeting on the Wednesday afternoon before the start of the Festival. Since I was coming across the country, I arrived a day earlier, in order to get there in time for the first meeting. So I had almost a day to get reacquainted with the Big Easy. I considered what I wanted to do for dinner the first evening; there are so many great options. I decided to try the French 75 Bar in Arnaud’s, one of New Orleans’ most loved restaurants. Of course I had a French 75, their signature drink; I also tried some delicious food (I hesitate to call it bar food!). The next morning I made my way to Café du Monde for beignets and café au lait…no better way to begin a day.
I strolled around the French Quarter, did a little shopping, and enjoyed the feeling of this city, vibrant and laid back at the same time. Lunch (yes, there was a lot of eating) was oysters and a shrimp po-boy at Acme Oyster Bar.
Once the “tour” started, we had a great schedule. Every morning after breakfast in our hotel, we were entertained and educated by musicians. For instance, on Thursday morning we heard the Lee Benoit Cajun Family Band. They played great music, of course, but we also learned a lot about Cajun music. I learned the difference between Cajun and Zydeco and, like everyone else, I was amazed by the talent of the musicians. In fact, after that first presentation I thought the organizers had erred by putting the best group first. Who could meet our expectations after that?
As it turned out, every other presentation! The next day we heard Doreen Ketchens and her jazz band, who play every day in the same place on Royal Street. How cool is that? As you might guess, Doreen was earthy and laid-back. Friday, we saw Michael White and his Quartet. Dr. White is a music professor, whose presentation was tightly organized and fascinating. Could it get better? Yes! Sunday morning Richard (Piano) Scott and his group played for us. At one point, someone in our group asked for a ragtime piece; these are notoriously challenging. Richard asked the other musicians if they were game to play something he’d written but they had never heard. They said if he would play a few bars of the refrain, they would do it. And, they did! I thought I knew a lot about music and about New Orleans, but I learned a lot more during these sessions. After our morning activities, and except for an excellent lunch or dinner in one of New Orleans’ amazing restaurants each day, our afternoons and evenings were our own. We were free to enjoy the French Quarter Festival. Sometimes by myself, sometimes with another group member, I wandered around the Festival, enjoying the music, eating some of my favorite New Orleans food, like grilled chicken livers with sweet hot pepper jelly from Praline Connection’s food booth. Since Road Scholar made portable chairs available to us, I would walk until I found a stage that grabbed me and then I made myself comfortable for an hour or so. I spent a lot of time at the Zydeco Stage because I love that music, and there is always an entertaining crowd with lots of people dancing.
The combination of free time and organized activities was perfect, and the Road Scholar tour was a great way to enjoy the Festival. The other travelers were interesting and intelligent, and it was really fun to share my love of New Orleans and its music with others of like mind.