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Skip the Beads, Hold the Bourbon

Many of the inner-city neighborhoods that are still home to the working class are scruffy, though in Tremé and Marigny you also see lots of gentrification. Some blocks and some houses look fine; many need a coat of paint. New Orleans is a city of badly paved streets and inadequate sidewalks, or none at all in these poorer areas. Even so, the old houses and atmosphere make these neighborhoods well worth a visit.

3. Listen to Live Jazz

New Orleans remains an important center for jazz, the great American art form that was invented here. The Marsalis family has again made the city's music famous around the world, but there's a constant stream of new talent. Jazz here seems to hang on by its fingernails, but it does hang on, as we learned on a Monday night at Donna's.

A trombone player performs at Donna's jazz club
A trombone player performs at Donna's jazz club
A trombone player performs at Donna's jazz club in New Orleans. (Chris Graythen - Getty Images For The Washington Post)

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Donna's is a small club on the nondescript northern border that marks the boundary between Tremé and the French Quarter. It's a well-known landmark, a stone's throw from the spot where Economy Hall once stood. This was the clapboard dance hall that was a popular venue before 1920, when Kid Ory's band -- including a young trumpeter named Louis Armstrong -- played there.

Most of the music at Donna's is played by New Orleans brass bands, a special local genre that is loud and fun, familiar to anyone who knows Dixieland jazz. But Mondays are for a more modern strain of jazz, often built around a popular local drummer named Bob French. By the best of good luck, we happened into Donna's on a Monday that was French's birthday. The place was jammed with his fans and friends.

One was Kermit Ruffins, a famous New Orleans trumpeter, who came this night to sing. So did Sister Teedy, aka Tricia Boutte, another beloved local musician who now spends much of her time in Scandinavia. Both sang old standards accompanied by a jazz quintet: piano, bass, drum, trumpet and trombone. Then Sister Teedy brought the house down with an off-color tune both melodic and suggestive: "You've Got the Right Key but the Wrong Keyhole."

The club is tiny, perhaps 20 by 40 feet, with a bar in back and a bandstand in front, along the longer wall. There are some tables, but most of the crowd stands throughout, most drinking $4 bottles of beer. Admission is $10, but the band also passes a tub for contributions. No one is getting rich on Monday nights at Donna's.

Yet it's hard to imagine a more enriching experience. When we called to make a reservation, Donna herself answered the phone. She responded to my question about whether food was served with a grunted yes, but added: "Come for the music." Good advice.

The crowd this night was a mix of white and black, young and old, long-haired and business-suited, all swept up in the music and the fun. A great place to hang out in New Orleans.

And keep an eye out for Jamel Williams, who played the trumpet when we were there, a handsome young man with a big talent. Perhaps one day he will make some New Orleans history.

4. Get Out of Town

This isn't as easy as jumping on the streetcar, but with our rented car we took an excursion I won't forget. New Orleans was once surrounded by plantations, the backbone of the local agricultural economy. Indeed, the Garden District was built on the land of former plantations. But to get a sense of that life today, you've got to drive for a while.

Our most interesting experience was in Thibodaux, a couple of hours southwest of New Orleans in the Cajun Wetlands country. You drive to Thibodaux across the absolutely flat Mississippi Delta; occasional bayous, or bodies of sluggish water, are the most interesting visual attraction.

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