Bourbon Street Needs a Re-Do

I’ve been thinking about Bourbon Street.

Yesterday I received a visit from Professor Nestor Regino, who came by the office to present me with a copy of a report he had prepared on New Orleans post-Katrina. Nestor and I had visited—and he had interviewed me—in 2009, when he was working on the report. He also interviewed musicians Bob French, Ellis Marsalis, Smokey Johnson, Troy Sawyer, reps from Sweet Home New Orleans and Make It Right Foundation, Barry Smith of the Louisiana Music Factory, and more.

Now Nestor is from San Francisco and his visits to New Orleans were done while he was on sabbatical.

In our visit yesterday, we started comparing notes about the differences between musicians there and here.

What was demonstrated most clearly in our conversation was that musicians in New Orleans are much more willing to share their musical expertise and their cultural backgrounds.  We know that local musicians play not in one band  but they spread themselves around to many different groups as band leaders and as sidemen. Thus everyone learns and interacts with everyone else. There’s a generosity of musical spirit that only exists here.

If you’ve experienced New Orleans music, you know this. This means is that there’s a fantastic opportunity for musical forms to grow, change, become cross-pollinated with others’ styles and ideas, which is something that makes our music scene living, growing and changing daily.

Nestor, being a musician himself, also pointed out that where’s he’s from, the music community really doesn’t welcome in others easily, unlike in New Orleans, where it seems that everyone is welcomed to “sit in.”

It’s been four years since Nestor visited New Orleans and he pointed out a lot of things that he found different about the city. Strangely, he said that Bourbon Street now seems to feature more soul and R&B rather than cover rock music (or maybe it was just the night he was there, this time around).

Al Hirt's Bourbon Street digs. Past.

Being interested in Bourbon Street as both a cultural phenomenon and a business center, it’s interesting to note that the nature of the businesses on the street have changed considerably over time.

When I was a kid, Bourbon Street had a bunch of music clubs owned by locally-famous musicians (Al Hirt and Pete Fountain). There were also a plethora of “adult entertainment” businesses that touted performers likes “Lilly Christine (The Cat Girl),” “Linda Brigette (The Cupid Girl)” and “Evangeline (The Oyster Girl).” Bourbon was a strip that became known worldwide as “sin city” because of its many strip clubs.

But back in the 1960s, District Attorney Jim Garrison decided to crack down on the rampant vice in the Quarter, and especially on Bourbon, and he succeeded in closing down many of the strip clubs. In fact there are currently only 12 businesses in the heart of Bourbon that can now be considered adult entertainment, according to research that’s in progress by the French Quarter Management District. About 50 years ago, there were four times that number.

Once the street was cleaned up by Garrison and rid of illegal liquor sales, gambling and prostitution activities, Bourbon Street began changing. Music became more homogenized to appeal to visitors, and a lot of local jazz musicians who had had musical homes on the street  left. Souvenir and t-shirt shops, and more corporate-type restaurants and bars opened on Bourbon, thus robbing the street of its unique cultural appeal.

Glitzy Neon Bourbon. Present.

Too bad. I can deal with local music and music clubs, strippers, burlesque clubs, Galatoire’s, gay clubs, bars that feature live musicians and real local music, and more swanky places like Irvin Mayfield’s Club. But I have a more difficult time dealing with “Huge Ass Beers,” t-shirt shops that sell cheesy sshirts and souvenirs, half-assed “adult entertainment,” bars that don’t try to showcase the city’s local musicians in a way that truly showcases our culture,  and chain-style restaurants and clubs. Bourbon Street—despite its reputation as a den of iniquity—could use a re-do. Bourbon has become, for the most part, a street dedicated to getting as much money as possible from unsuspecting tourists. I’m not saying by any means that everything on Bourbon is crappy, because it’s not. What I am saying is that some serious thought, planning, and revamping needs to become part of the city’s plan for Bourbon Street:  we have a captive audience on Bourbon, so why aren’t we trying to raise our standards of what’s on the street rather than simply appealing to the lowest common denominator of tourist?


  • WWOZ_Big_D

    It is interesting I had this very conversation yesterday about Bourbon Street. There are a few locations that have quality music on Bourbon Street but there is not a consistency that you can depend on to find good music there. The person I was talking with was amused when I described it, “Once in a while you find a good biscuit in the trash can, but that’s not the best place to look for one.”

  • marc

    I totally agree with you. Being from Amsterdam, Holland I visit New Orleans a couple of times per year. If you love music you go to Frenchmen Str, Bourbon is a tourist trap with for the most part mediocre music and sloppy bars. Try to turn it around before it’s really a Disney park for grown ups.

  • Ted Graham

    Just last weekend I had a young couple from Canada stop by my gig at Margaritaville and thank me profusely for restoring their faith in New Orleans music. They’d arrived in town early in the evening and started by checking out Bourbon Street. They said they thought they’d made a mistake and maybe New Orleans wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. But they said my band was just what they were hoping for. When we finished at 11:00 I directed them to Frenchmen. They stopped by the next night and thanked me for the guidance as Frenchmen further restored their faith in the New Orleans musical community.

    • janramsey

      There’s lots of good music all around the city. There used to be a lot more good music on Bourbon. The city has not stepped up to the plate and kept an eye on Bourbon Street, but frankly, I am sort of wondering how they will manage to do that. New Orleans isn’t exactly known for its enforcement of regulations. And how do you regulate music “style” anyway? How do you reconcile quality–which may not draw as many yahoos to drink Huge Ass Beers–with quantity?

      The difference in Bourbon Street and Frenchmen Street owner/operators of bars is vast in terms of their mentality of what they want to present. Frenchmen Street is all about the music (with the exception of one or two operators who don’t care; they’re in it for the $). Bourbon Street is purely about money.

      Again: there ARE places on Bourbon who try to present quality music and entertainment too.

      And here’s another point: my idea of quality entertainment differs from what others think. I’m sure Honey Boo-Boo’s mom and pop wouldn’t have the same taste as me or you. But I think that Bourbon Street, for the most part, caters more to drinkers rather than music lovers. There’s a helluva lot more money in beer and booze than there is in music.