• Journal Archive
By Ashley O'Neill is a monthly memoir of life in New Orleans. Keep up with Ashley on Instagram.

There’s something about growing up in New Orleans that ties you to music with an intimacy and intricacy that I cannot describe. I didn’t necessarily grow up listening to the greats — the legends — of New Orleans music. I discovered them at my own pace. I sought them out during sober nights on Frenchman Street as a high schooler, just wanting a place to dance. To sweat and move with friends and come home by 11 to get up for school the next day. 

I remember going to Snug Harbor for the first time with my friend Ryan at 16. We sat upstairs in the balcony and there was a full brass band on stage. Once, during a sax solo, the musician did something strange with his melody line and unexpectedly changed the rhythm — it was brilliant, strategic, exciting, and I was so tickled that I laughed loudly in an otherwise quiet crowd. A laugh that said, “You bitch! That was amazing!”

I laugh a lot during live jazz. I gasp, I applaud, I cheer. As a musician, it feels like they're telling me a secret or a funny joke when they do something unexpected. Like I’m the only one in the room that knows what they did. It’s intimate, and it’s different for every person experiencing the performance. Maybe that’s why it touches us so deeply. Maybe it’s just a musician thing, or a New Orleans thing. I don’t know what it is—but it feels good to feel like you’re a part of something so rich and wonderful. 

On my 18th birthday, the summer before I went to college, I returned to Snug Harbor with my friend Melaina. I ended up singing on stage with Charmaine Neville — it was magic. I don’t remember much from that evening, except for the blue lights and the sensation of jazz. It was one of the first times I had that intense feeling when you’re on the cusp of a new phase in your life and you know it — you can feel all of that fresh energy vibrating in your bones. I remember thinking, “This is it. This is what I’ve been waiting for.”

I left New Orleans for four years and recently returned. Two weeks ago, my roommate and I stumbled into Dos Jefes for Taco Tuesday and live jazz. We were the youngest in a small crowd. As I sat down with my wine, the band began playing, and I remembered how it felt to listen to jazz. I remembered how you can't sit in your seat because the drums are so good — you must dance. I remembered what it was like to be in on the joke...so I laughed.

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