Just about everyone has heard the city of New Orleans, located in Louisiana along the Mississippi River, referred to as “The Big Easy.” While the term has been used in everything from literature to sales brochures and even movies, its origins are somewhat obscure. There are actually several theories on how New Orleans came to have the nickname.
The nickname may be related to the rich musical heritage of New Orleans. The city has long been a haven for jazz and blues musicians who wanted a place to hone their craft. Legend has it that the earliest use of the Big Easy had to do with the fact that there were so many ways for a good musician to make a living in New Orleans. From performing on the streets and in the parks to playing private parties and in nightclubs, no other American city was said to be so open and so supportive of musical artists. The nickname might have been coined to refer to the ease with which a struggling musician could find work and study music at the same time.
Another possible origin for the nickname is connected to the relaxed attitude toward alcohol consumption that was found in New Orleans, even during the days of Prohibition. The city, perhaps more than any other, continued to enjoy an active night life that offered everything from bathtub gins to the finest wines. Anyone who wanted to enjoy a drink or two could easily find something to his or her liking among the many nightspots of New Orleans. The name could. therefore, have referred to the great ease of enjoying an evening with the alcohol of one’s choice.
The relatively low cost of living in New Orleans, in comparison to many major US cities, has also been suggested as the origin of the nickname. Musicians were not the only professionals who could easily find work in the city. Coupled with affordable housing and plenty of fresh food and drink, even a modest paycheck would allow a relatively comfortable standard of living.
Whatever the origins of the nickname, there is no doubt that references to New Orleans as the Big Easy have increased dramatically since the release of a film of the same name in 1987. Set in New Orleans, the film introduced the culture and atmosphere of the city to many people that only knew it through travelogues. Today, just about everyone knows exactly what is being discussed when they hear the nickname mentioned. Whether conjuring images of an easy lifestyle, plenty of entertainment, or a place where music plays day and night, there is no doubt the Big Easy is now firmly a part of the national vocabulary, and will be for many years to come.
[gdlr_quote align=”center” ]Just relax, darlin’. This is the Big Easy. Folks have a certain way o’ doin’ things down here..[/gdlr_quote]
Trombone Shorty performs at the 2012 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.(Douglas Mason)
Eric Clapton, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Christina Aguilera, Phish, Santana, Arcade Fire, John Fogerty, Robert Plant, Alabama Shakes… New Orleans hosts thousands of events each year, but one of their most popular attractions is the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival presented by Shell (Jazz Fest), founded in 1970 when the non-profit New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation was formed to promote and preserve music, arts, and culture in Louisiana.
It’s said that, during the very first Jazz Fest, there were more people on stage than in the audience. But today, the festival generates some $300 million a year for the local economy. It’s no wonder, considering this year’s featured acts. There are so many highlights that deciding which to experience in April won’t be easy.
Which leads us to a question: how did New Orleans get dubbed “The Big Easy?” The city’s official name comes from the city of Orleans, in France, itself named after Phillippe Duc D’Orleans. But as for the nickname—well, it’s not an “easy” question to answer.
There are a number of theories in circulation. One references how easy it was, and continues to be, for musicians to land gigs in New Orleans. By the way, you may be surprised to learn that the word “jazz” did not originate in NOLA, according to You Don’t Know Jazz and jazz pianist, musicologist, educator, and author Dr. Lewis Porter. They claim that to date, the earliest documented use of the word was in an article published on April 2, 1912 in the LA Times. It had nothing to do with music, but everything to do with baseball. The brief, entitledBen’s Jazz Curve, includes this quote from the pitcher: “I call it the Jazz ball because it wobbles and you simply can’t do anything with it.”
So while the word “jazz” was later associated with music, it didn’t stem from New Orleans, which was once said to be one of the least expensive places to live. Actually, that’s another theory on why it’s called The Big Easy.
But locals attribute the widespread use of the nickname The Big Easy to the late Betty Guillaud, a gossip columnist from the Times-Picayune. They say that Guillaud used the term first in the early 1970s to compare life in New York City—the Big Apple—to life in New Orleans—The Big Easy.
Lea Sinclair, her friend and marketing director for The New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corporation, insists that Guillaud popularized the term, even pointing to her Times-Picayune obituary: “Betty Guillaud, a Times-Picayune columnist who swanned her way through a succession of soirees and swankiendas as she chronicled the fun and foibles of the denizens of the Big Easy, a nickname for New Orleans that she helped popularize, died Saturday at the Sanctuary of complications of Alzheimer’s disease. She was 79.”
Author James Conaway, who penned the crime novel The Big Easy, has a different story. According to Conaway, the phrase was never in print until his book was published in 1970. And here’s how he came up with the book title from which the nickname was popularized: Before he became a novelist, in the mid-1960s, Conaway was working as a police reporter for the Times-Picayune. One night, he says, while walking on Claiborne Avenue to the criminal courthouse, he overheard two African-American men chatting, and the words “the big easy” stuck out. Conaway isn’t exactly sure what it pertained to; he can only speculate. But, “it was a wonderful phrase. I’d never heard it before,” he says. “It’s an indigenous phrase I overheard as a police reporter and, struck by it, named the novel title two years later.”
So what of Betty Guillaud? Conaway suggests she must have read his book (or perhaps a review of it in the Times-Picayune) and picked up the phrase. Lea Sinclair begs to differ. “My opinion is that I think Betty did use it before 1970, and while I don’t know whether the author’s memory is correct or not, my guess is that he heard it at the Times-Picayune. His recollection, however, makes for good copy,” she told us via email.
“It’s my phrase,” counters the author. “Nobody heard that phrase before I used it.”
Well, nobody except at least two men in deep conversation one night in New Orleans…