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.
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.
"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.
"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."