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

“You can’t compare Snug Harbor to any other venue in this city,” Charmaine says, a strong plug from a woman with her last name. “Snug’s been the stabilizing force on Frenchmen for years.” Run until 2007 by George Brumat, a larger-than-life Paul Prudhomme-looking character, Snug has become renowned for being a musicians-come-first kind of place. “People thought George was crazy for pumping money into this neighborhood,” says Jason Patterson, who lives in the space above the club and took over when George died. “Snug was the initial place to get tourists this far down [from the French Quarter].”

“Snug was where I played first after the storm,” Charmaine says. “George set up gigs as soon as he could and made sure every musician walked out with $100, and it was out of his own pocket. To see SnugHarbor open, we knew the city would survive.”

I was on Frenchmen Street the week of Jelly Roll Morton’s birthday a few years ago. He grew up on Frenchmen, and Snug Harbor hosted a tribute show. As I watched the dream team of players riffing off one another, nailing “Sweet Substitute” and “Red Hot Pepper” with ease, the plain magic of jazz revealed itself to me, if just a moment. A giant-handed trumpeter in a gray suit blew out a simple enough ragtime tune, and the others followed him in turn, each musician twisting and turning the baseline notes like a ribbon in the wind, until they all ended up right where they began on the trumpet’s cue. It was otherworldly, perfectly timed, immeasurably more than notes of music played through instruments. It was heavenly stuff, something the tips of my fingers and the back of my neck recognized. As the night sounds rippled out over the Marigny, I couldn’t help but wonder if what was happening, what I’d witnessed inside Snug Harbor, was like the spirit of New Orleans the city: the hundred years of jazz music as a base melody; the generations forever listening and responding and improvising; the light shining in the darkness as the last note echoed in the night. As Charmaine tells it, that is New Orleans. That is Frenchmen Street. Jazz is freedom music. A place where creed and color don’t matter. “It’s about the songs,” she says. “And that’s never going anywhere. It goes on and on and on.”

 

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