I was 13 years old when I took a train to Inverness, Scotland with my parents. I was wide-eyed with wonder. Scotland! What did I know of it? Well, nothing — other than that the streets would be filled with men in plaid kilts playing bagpipes, of course.
That much, I knew.
And so it was that, as we walked around town that first morning, there were men in kilts everywhere, playing bagpipes. In the public squares. On street corners. Down every alley. Everywhere, bagpipers abounded!
It was nothing short of breathlessly magical.
It was also not what it appeared to be. Turns out that my childish imagining of Scotland was, of course, just that: the stuff of fairy tales and children's books.
What my family happened to have wandered into was an event called the Northern Meeting, an annual festival to celebrate the traditions — and music — of the Scottish Highlands. The festival includes the national bagpipe competition, and what we were witnessing was the contestants tuning up.
The range and pitch of the instrument is such that the men needed to get far away from each other to tune and practice, and so it was that they were scattered all over town, rendering a magical soundtrack over the landscape.
Thrilled as I was to witness this fantastic phenomenon, I was, of course, very disappointed to realize that the streets, meadows and hills of Scotland were not actually filled with men playing bagpipes. Because that's what any visitor would expect, and certainly want, to see, of course — based on a lifetime of reading, storytelling and Disney movies.
And this leads us to New Orleans, where, when visitors come, they expect to find streets filled with men blowing horns. Hot jazz on every street corner, music falling from the sky like rain, filling the ears with the city's unique soundtrack.
On one corner, that's exactly what visitors can find. At the corner of Bourbon and Canal streets, young men deliver the straight-out-of-your-imagination New Orleans street scene: A band playing, people dancing, a tableau that gives tourists and locals alike a fantasy version of what we all dream New Orleans is like.
But the scene at the corner of Bourbon and Canal has been tamped down. The city's law books say you can't play in the streets after 8 p.m. After that time, you've got to take it inside. Never mind that the To Be Continued Brass Band has been playing on that corner until deep into the night for years and years and years.
Everyone has benignly ignored a law that suppresses the great urge and tradition of young players — to take it to the street. But someone's been complaining, and the cops have been breaking up the scene and — as seems so often the case — the vibrant street culture of New Orleans is being assailed, rather than encouraged, by the authorities.
It's almost too good to be true, what the TBC Brass Band does: presents and promotes New Orleans culture and tradition — at no cost to the city! I was in Nashville, Tenn., recently and, in moving from one concourse to another, I passed two different lounges where country and Western bands were playing. It wasn't even noon yet!
All I could think was: That's the way it should be done! You visit Nashville, you expect country music everywhere. That's the way to imprint the visitors, seduce them, lure them back.
For a while, somebody was paying bands to play at our airport, but the project was short-lived. And too bad, because it's a very small price to pay — a couple hundred bucks — to make a really big impression on folks coming to and leaving town.
It says this place is serious about its music and culture.
But yet again, New Orleans can't seem to find a way to let street traditions grow and spread. We shouldn't be running bands off the street; we should be inviting more into the street.
It's not just for visitors. Just like the free concerts in Lafayette Square in the springtime, I love to stop and listen to the guys at the corner of Bourbon and Canal. It's impossible to walk away from the scene without a bounce in your step — and Lord knows we could all use a bounce in our step around here.
So c'mon, New Orleans. Let the band play on! Give the people what they want!
And now, remind me to tell you about the time I went to the Netherlands and walked into a bar and found two guys dressed in lederhosen and wooden shoes playing pool.