Meet the Musicians of Frenchmen Street

With a dozen world-class shows a night, the 600 block of Frenchmen Street is the song and soul of New Orleans, a city that has lived the blues and gave birth to jazz.
Taylor Bruce

“Music is everywhere,” John says. “Even before the flood, Frenchmen was the spot.

“I love the diversity. Traditional jazz, funk, blues, string quartets, Latin, reggae, modern jazz,” adds John, who performs every Saturday night at d.b.a., an all-cypress shotgun space with chapel-crisp acoustics. “Frenchmen is diverse. It’s bohemian, a fertile ground for musicians. You can find everything on this street like one beautiful little package.

“Look at me, man,” says John, whose Creole heritage dates back seven generations. He’s perking up. “You think they stuck with one thing when they made me?”

The revolving door of live shows on Frenchmen Street—during one week in January I counted more than 70—brought full-time musician “Washboard” Chaz Leary to New Orleans almost a decade ago from Colorado. Chaz, who attaches a wood block, two soup cans, and a reception bell to his washboard, might be the hardest working man, if not in New Orleans, certainly on the street. He plays four regular gigs a week in multiple Frenchmen clubs, and claims as  many bands: The Tin Men, The Palmetto Bug Stompers, Washboard Rodeo, and the Washboard Chaz Blues Trio.

“This street exudes music,” says Chaz, standing outside The Spotted Cat Music Club, a one-room joint with no cover and a piano with black leather patina in the ladies’ room. “Music pours out. You can play anything you want—as long as it’s good.”

Chaz talks like he’s spent well over a decade living in South Louisiana. His voice inflects and rolls in that beautiful and borrowed New Orleans way: diphthongs of the Deep South, hints of rough New York boroughese, peppered with French and Spanish. His voice is very much like Frenchmen Street and its neighborhood, Faubourg Marigny, a pocket populated in the early 19th century by a jumble of people descendant from Europe, the Southern U.S., and the Caribbean. Before bars and clubs came in, it was a working street with seafood factories, hardware stores, and industrial laundries, where family owners lived above the business. If it was not a melting pot, Frenchmen was a jambalaya. Because of this mixed heritage, varied styles and traditions in music have always found open doors.

"It hasn’t changed,” band leader Charmaine Neville, a Monday night Snug Harbor mainstay since 1986, says of the vibe on the street. “For as long as I can remember, patrons have been coming year after year.”

Snug Harbor, the unchallenged jazz club anchor on Frenchmen, has been bringing in fans longer than any. Started in 1980, Snug Harbor is the most laidback, listener-friendly setting on the strip. Even for novice jazz admirers, the room feels special, though minimally decorated. And the musicians are some of the finest in the world, even when the names mean zip to the average person.

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