Frenchmen Street in the Faubourg Marigny of New Orleans is a pulse, a holdover, an invitation, a gumbo, a front line, a late night, a memory, a wish, a tonic. It is Creole town houses, packed together and toeing property lines. It is peels of paint and wrought iron dust and the scents of oyster factory, confectionery, and laundromat, all wafting down the arrow-straight street. It is bartender, mailman, sax player, concierge, barista, priest, lowlife, wanderer, tenor, and shopkeeper.
The thin asphalt lane locals used to call Little Canal Street begins on a bend of the Mississippi River where the eastern French Quarter ends and passes between Seventh Ward, Treme, and Bywater, then runs north toward Lake Pontchartrain. Under the shimmery asphalt lays a parish gravel; and beneath that, a cobbled row laid atop a silty bed of fine antebellum earth washed up from hundreds of years gone by. And beneath it all, it is a melody.
It’s afternoon on Frenchmen Street, and singer John Boutté has a slight cold. The 5'2" man strolls with me in front of Café Rose Nicaud and Snug Harbor jazz club, a soft wind meeting his caramel face. As he nears the shuttered-up yellow-and-blue Café Brasil and a ramshackle corner bookstore, he rewraps his linen scarf like he’s got chills. An older man playing double steel pans across the intersection nods John’s way. A car honks and its driver cranes and shouts to John, “Where you been, man?” John hollers back over the wobbly island sound. His voice is nasally and breathy, the scratchy signature of a working vocalist. “I been here, man,” he says.
It’s hours before the two blocks of Frenchmen where John Boutté and I stand will stir into a virtual street party, and what locals, if prodded, will confide is the best section of live jazz in the city. Seven nights a week, patrons fill the cluster of clubs lining the 500 and 600 blocks between Decatur and Chartres. Named in a row, the clubs sound like crystals from sweet Dixieland tunes: The Spotted Cat Music Club, Snug Harbor, Apple Barrel Bar, Blue Nile, Café Negril, d.b.a., and The Maison (formerly called Ray’s Boom Boom Room). Ten minutes by foot from Bourbon Street’s ruckus, just across Esplanade, Frenchmen’s music clubs exude the world-famous New Orleans jive and spirit—without the 60-ounce beers and bead-call hassle I’ve come to loathe.