Students discover culture, color and jazz in trip to ‘Big Easy’

By Samantha Brandbergh

In the French Quarter of New Orleans, nothing is black and white.

Chair of the English Department Jack Sullivan has been taking his students on one-week-long trips to New Orleans every January, and to Charleston, South Carolina, in the summer, as part of his American Studies course since 1990.

Nearly every building in New Orleans’ French Quarter along the narrow roads is splashed with bright colors: yellow, baby blue, salmon, orange, purple and hot pink. Many of these colors are integrated on the structures, with yellow walls and blue shutters being a normal sight for locals.

Ferns and plants drape the intricate and detailed rod iron balconies on these buildings. Some of the streets are home to palm trees as well, giving the area a tropical feeling.

The clatter of horse hooves from the horse drawn carriages is the closest thing to time travel, with jazz music as the soundtrack.

After taking leisurely trips to the Big Easy in the ’80s, Sullivan “fell in love with the place.” The idea to create a course that consisted of traveling was born in one of his classes on Southern culture.

“One of my students said, ‘Well, if you love New Orleans so much, Dr. Sullivan, why don’t you take us there?’” he said. “And then when I became director of American Studies a year or two later, I suddenly had the authority to create something.”

Years after creating the trip, he is currently in the process of writing a book on the current music scene of New Orleans, entitled “New Orleans Remixed: Crescent City Sounds.”

This year’s students were immediately immersed in New Orleans culture once the plane landed on Jan. 10. A late night at the iconic Maple Leaf Bar with a soulful and electric performance from the Rebirth Brass Band was one of the first things on the agenda.

The jazz band surprised the audience when they invited Flea of The Red Hot Chili Peppers on stage to jam out, which resulted in fans in the crowd exchanging high-fives with each other as they reached for their phones.

Music clubs aren’t the only place to find sounds of New Orleans, however.

Just by walking down the streets from Dauphine to Jackson Square, musicians, some with an acoustic guitar, others with a full band, were scattered on the corners. Their guitar cases were open, many of them already filled with dollar bills from passersby.

In addition to musicians, artists showcased their talents for tourists and locals alike. Painters lined up their works for sale along the rod iron fencing, and performers, adorned in eye-catching costumes, stood as still as statues in various poses, prompting those crossing the street to stop and gawk at the sight.

Junior health management major Kelsey Johnson signed up for the New Orleans trip after her positive experience on last year’s Charleston trip.

“I had always seen New Orleans as a really upbeat city, like it appears on television or from what other people told me of their own experiences,” she said. “I was happy to see that they were right. I knew the trip would be completely different from Charleston, but I looked forward to meeting new people and experiencing the culture. I had never been to New Orleans prior to the trip, so I looked forward to experiencing someplace different.”

Alongside the upbeat and fast-paced activities, the group was also able to take relaxing tours of the French Quarter and Garden District, where students saw homes of Hollywood actresses and actors such as John Goodman and Sandra Bullock, as well as the “American Horror Story: Coven” house.

Since the Mardi Gras season is an important aspect of New Orleans culture, students had the pleasure of dining in the Rex Room of Antoine’s, the oldest restaurant in New Orleans. Emerald green walls with gold detailing adorned the room as a sparking chandelier hung above the table, and a short history of Mardi Gras Rex, or “kings,” including crowns and scepters, displayed in glass enclosures.

The majority of the restaurants Sullivan takes his students to are high-end, which is a far cry from where students would dine in the early days of the trip.

“The cuisine part [of the trip] really attracts people,” he said. “In the old days, I took people to some really bad restaurants. They’re terrible compared to now, just really greasy and cheap.”

For Johnson, traveling to New Orleans, even just for a week, has given her a better grasp on the many different cultural aspects of the diverse city.

“After going on both the Charleston trip and the New Orleans trip with Sullivan, I can say with confidence that the trip is definitely worth it, especially if these places are new to you,” she said. “The American studies trips are a good way to preview the culture of the city you are visiting as well as make good friends.”

Although he has been organizing these trips for 27 years now, Sullivan never gets tired of going.

“There’s always something awesome that happens that’s completely unexpected,” he said. “It’s never the same; magic is ordinary there.”


Originally published in the 2/1/17 edition.

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