The very first moment I set foot in New Orleans I heard music. It was the breathy sound of a steam calliope atop a paddleboat on the Mississippi River. The sounds of the city (one that I would later call home) made a great first impression. New Orleans is a city with a soundtrack, and this is just one of the many beautiful things I love about my adopted home.
One afternoon in the summer of 1992, I drove into New Orleans for the first time. I really didn’t know what to expect, but I brought with me a number of misconceptions. I knew about Bourbon Street and wanted to avoid it. I had heard about the crime and the poverty. To some extent, I equated the whole city with these incomplete caricatures.
As I made my way into the city that first time, I noticed the dramatic juxtaposition of rich and poor; old and new. I was captured by the fading beauty and the preserved historic architecture of the most unique city in the United States. I was still processing all that I had seen on my drive when I arrived in the French Quarter.
The moment I opened my door, I heard music. The riverboat calliope was only the opening act of an outdoor concert that stretched from the Mississippi River near Canal Street to Jackson Square.
I heard the music of teenagers with bottle caps on their shoes tap dancing for tips to the beat of a bucket drum. Further down Decatur Street, I heard random bursts of jazz wafting from the restaurants and shops along our way (some live, some recorded). We encountered several jazz musicians playing in and around the Square.
After a brief time in the Quarter and the requisite visit to Café du Monde, I left. I didn’t visit New Orleans again until 2001, but the music stuck with me.
In 2001 when I started seminary, I began spending time in the city. Though I lived in Mississippi, I came to the city for classes and evangelism projects in the French Quarter. With time, the caricatures of New Orleans faded. Slowly, I began to understand and love this place. I gradually opened my heart to the beauty here. A few years later I moved to the city, and for the past eighteen years I have embraced New Orleans as home.
I discovered that the people of the city were the most beautiful part. And the music they create is a glimpse into their souls. Music flows freely on every block of this city. Kids who grow up in New Orleans have music flowing through their veins.
Jazz was born here in a melting pot of cultures. As jazz musicians coax unbelievable sounds from brass and wood and ivory, they also poignantly capture emotion. Jazz is used to celebrate birth, death, and even rebirth. It is also used to mourn and lament. The second line at a New Orleans funeral remembers and celebrates the deceased and also acknowledges the possibility of life with God after death. These powerful traditions of the jazz funeral and second line parade, which combine mourning, lament, celebration and hope, offer a prime opportunity for believers to speak of what Jesus has done on our behalf and the hope we have in Him. And when we engage people from New Orleans around music, we are speaking their heart language.
God gave us music to praise Him. He gave it to us because it is beautiful. Music helps us express and wrestle with the wide range of emotions that we experience as human beings – New Orleans does this well. The soundtrack of this city and the songs of its people have helped me to better appreciate the beauty of the gift God has given us. Music is gift from God and so is the city of New Orleans.
Created by New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary & Leavell College