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How saxophonist Bill Bua gets around New Orleans

A musician reveals (some of) his secrets for navigating the city

Bua’s a regular at the legendary Frenchmen Street jazz club The Spotted Cat.
In Pictures via Getty Images

How do Americans move through their cities? Here at Curbed, we’re super curious about the transportation habits of regular folks. So, using a diary format, we’re asking real people to track their multimodal journeys for a week and report back with the highs and lows of what it takes to get around town.

William Bua—you can call him Bill—is a New Orleans musician who you can find performing all over the city, whether he’s playing in the clubs on Frenchmen Street or busking on the street in the French Quarter. His constant companion is his curved soprano saxophone, which makes navigating the city’s labyrinthine parking requirements and perpetual street closures a challenge.

Bua’s also a newcomer to the city. Almost two years ago, he moved to New Orleans from Sacramento, California, to pursue his musical career. Appropriately, Bua tracked his transportation during the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival—known locally as Jazz Fest—on some of the busiest weekends for the city.

Monday, April 30

Tonight, I leave my house about 6:50 p.m. for Frenchmen Street, where most of the jazz clubs are, and where most of us play a lion’s share of our gigs. I don’t have a gig tonight, but I go down to hear music on my nights off.

Bua and his curved soprano saxophone onstage.
William Bua

My home is in Gentilly which is about 10 minutes’ drive from Frenchmen Street and 12 minutes from the French Quarter. When my wife and I first landed here 19 months ago, our now-next-door-neighbor gave us a place to land until we found a place to stay. Two days in, the place next door came up for rent. Destiny struck!

It’s far enough away to have some quiet—you don’t have parades going by—but still close enough to get to everything. After we moved in, my wife lost her job. Summer slows way down for musicians, so we redoubled my efforts and sold a car to keep afloat. Now we share one car.

I play a curved soprano saxophone—let’s say it’s over the $3,000 mark. It weighs about five pounds and the case would fit in most backpacks. I have to take it in a car to get it safely to my gigs.

Parking is normally pretty easy for me since I know some of the secret places that only residents and musicians know about. Musicians want parking that’s close to the venues so we don’t have to walk too far, but also not too close—it’s also about instrument security and not being mugged after payment from the gig we just played. The money is replaceable, but not the horn.

I find parking 10 minutes later on my first pass one block away from The Spotted Cat. The clubs are so-so as far as an audience. I expected as much since we just had the first four-day weekend of Jazz Fest. Many of the patrons I did see had Jazz Fest sunburns and the musicians were a little tired, to say the least. I expect the same tomorrow, but by Wednesday, things should start to get busy again. I leave Frenchmen Street at 11:30 p.m.—no problems.

Tuesday, May 1

I end up picking up a last-second gig at Rare Form at 10 p.m. I arrive early to catch Meschiya Lake’s final performance with her Hot Horns at The Spotted Cat. I leave Gentilly at 6:30 p.m. and again, I find parking on the first pass—literally 20 feet from where I found parking Monday night.

The gig at Rare Form was well-attended and we’re asked to play an extra set. I end up leaving at 3:45 a.m., ugh.

People party more here than any place I’ve ever been. I’m 55 and I have had to relearn how to drink. Mostly because the patrons will buy shots for the band and it’s bad form not to drink them. If I know it’s gonna be a gig like that, I’ll get a ride if I have to. Or if the car is already down there, I’ll have my wife come and Lyft down, and meet me to drive the car home.

Some clubs reserve parking for musicians out front, but it’s a rarity.
William Bua

Especially for these early morning walks back to the car, well-lit streets are a great thing for anyone working or visiting here. I am keenly aware of my surroundings and check to see if I’m being followed when I turn my final corner towards my car. Transitional spaces are where we are most vulnerable. It’s like carrying a safe deposit box.

I haven’t had anyone I know personally get mugged, but there’s always a couple of stories out there. The last two I heard, they took the money, but not the instruments, so the musicians can keep earning money and they can rob them again. What professional courtesy from our New Orleans thieves.

One thing I never ever ever do is leave my instrument in the car. These are bigger investments than our cars will ever be. I drive a jalopy because New Orleans doesn’t fix its potholes. The roads are worse than the roads I drove as a hunter in Sacramento. Dirt and gravel farm roads not even on a map are way better than New Orleans roads.

Wednesday, May 2

Just picked up another last-minute gig at Rare Form. We did so well last night that they asked us back, this time 6 to 10 p.m. Then the plan is to go over to The Maison to hear some friends from California who are here on tour.

I leave home at 5:25 anticipating more difficulty finding a spot. I’m right, but it isn’t too bad. My strategy is to start making circles around Frenchmen a block or two from it, then go out a block, and keep adding a block until I find a spot that doesn’t feel too dangerous. You just have to hope that you get really lucky. French Quarter parking is bad all the time—a royal nightmare.

Windshield perspective of The Blue Nile club on Frenchmen Street.
William Bua

Some of the clubs will reserve places up front for the drummer or the sousaphone player, just one parking spot for load in and load out. But only the good clubs do this.

Tonight it takes me two times around the circuit, which is about a 10-minute drive. I end up on Royal in a two-hour residential zone; since I get there after 5, I won’t get a ticket. The clubs are all jammed. Great gig.

Afterwards, The Maison is 1.5 blocks from the gig I played so I walk. I always have my horn—you never know when someone doesn’t show up and a band needs a sub.

Thursday, May 3

Morning busking on Royal Street and a late night gig at Bamboula’s. Trying to find parking for busking is a little different since it’s in the French Quarter and it’s during the day. Most spots are two-hour zones and cost money to park. Moving your car every two hours is a royal pain in the ass.

I would love to have the city sell us passes, like window stickers, where we’re able to pay a one-time fee per year to park in those residential zones, or in certain blocks around Frenchmen Street, without getting tickets. Or have musician-only areas. I would pay to be a part of that fraternity.

I choose to park in a non-time-restricted zone outside the Quarter for two reasons. One, I hate moving my car every two hours. Two, I’m a cheap SOB. All my go-to spots are already taken today, so I end up on Elysian Fields close to Burgundy which is quite a walk. Busking starts at 11 a.m., and I get back to the car at 3 p.m.

Still, I would rather park a mile away and walk in to the French Quarter during the day than try to get parking nearby. On a weekend—forget it.

The night gig is a 10 p.m. hit. After the crowd on Wednesday, I figured I would leave a bit earlier than usual so if I couldn’t find parking, my wife could drop me off and I would Lyft home. My concerns were nullified. It wasn’t quite as busy as Wednesday night and I find parking on the first go around at 7:40. I listen to some of my friends’ bands play until it’s my turn at 10 p.m. Got out at 1:30 a.m., no problems.

Friday, May 4

No busking, but another 10 p.m. hit at Bamboula’s. Now the tourists are here! I come out early and I’m glad I did. I can’t find parking within 10 blocks of Frenchmen Street, so I go home and have my wife drive me back to drop me off.

Since it’s May the 4th Be With You, we play with Star Wars shirts on at Bamboula’s. We play all the Star Wars songs—well, there are really only three of them. I know those backwards and forwards. There wasn’t enough room to put your foot down, just the way I like it as far as money goes.

Again, I get out at 1:30 a.m. and my wife picks me up on the corner of Frenchmen and Royal. No problems.

Luckily I have my wife to help give me rides on the chaotic days. If the city was able to take 20 or even 15 percent of its public parking lots and make a designated, affordable place for musicians and service industry people to park a safe distance from the action, with someone in a guard booth watching the cars, that would make everyone’s life a heck of a lot easier. We’re only making a certain amount of money and it can cost $20 per day to park.

Saturday, May 5

No gigs tonight, but friends from Sacramento are in town, so I showed them the sights of New Orleans during the day with plans to do the same that night.

I drive them around and show them St. Charles and Esplanade and all the old plantation houses. I take them to get beignets and we eat them in City Park—you know, the things you do for out-of-towners. We walk around the lake and it’s a really easy laid-back day.

Golden hour at the Louisiana Music Factory.
William Bua

I drop them off at their hotel late that afternoon to meet up with them later on Frenchmen. I show up around 7:30 p.m. and it is an absolute zoo. I circle the circuit for an hour to no avail. I go home, mostly because I’m picking up something from lack of sleep and the many bugs being passed around by the throngs of people that are visiting from all regions of the country—from all over the world, for that matter. I’m home at 9 p.m.

I could have taken Lyft. I take Lyft once in a while—if you’re in a household with one car it’s a necessary evil. If I have a gig on Friday night and my wife can’t drop me off before her writers’ group, I’m taking a Lyft one way no matter what. But I don’t want to spend money—I’d rather make money.

Sunday, May 6

I have a 1 p.m. gig at Bamboula’s today with the New Orleans Ragweeds. Parking will be a non-issue since my wife needs the car. She will drop me off and pick me up for this one. No headaches. The clubs are full even during the day. The last day of Jazz Fest is in full swing, but with this bug setting in, I’m glad my gig is an early one. Home by 5:50 p.m. Cheers!

This was an atypical-typical week. Any time there’s any kind of holiday, festival, or—god forbid—Mardi Gras, New Orleans is a tough place to park. Every major holiday weekend there’s something happening in New Orleans. From early February to June 15 or so, parades happen somewhere during each weekend. During Mardi Gras it’s every darned day.

This week was easier than I expected. Last year during the second week of Jazz Fest was a real nightmare, but I was new here and didn’t know some of the secret spots. I would share them with y’all—but then they wouldn’t be secret anymore, would they?