The "Hang" That George Built: The Pioneer of New Orleans' Frenchman Street Music Scene
Jazz guitarist and New Orleans native Davy Mooney relocated to New York in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. After one of his periodic return visits over a year later, I asked him to assess the state of the recovery of the music community. "When I go down to Frenchman Street, it's still a great 'hang.' I know everybody on a first name basis," he said. "It's always like a homecoming. It's like Cheers. Everybody knows your name. It's a small scene. Everybody's family."
Indeed, Frenchman St. is the best hang to get a sense of the local jazz scene and of the close knit community of local musicians and music lovers in New Orleans these days. And it all started decades ago with one iconic club and one visionary supporter of both music and musiciansthe late George Brumat.
George was a local club owner who opened a venue called the Faubourg (referencing the area of New Orleans called the Faubourg Marigny), later changed to Snug Harbor, its current moniker. Snug Harbor has stood as the premier jazz venue in New Orleans and the anchor of Frenchman St. for decades. Given the club's location outside of the French Quarter and away from the primary concentration of music venues of the day during its inception, there were skeptics of Brumat's vision of a new jazz epicenter.
My brief personal encounter with George came in the spring of 2007 during an interview with Ellis Marsalis, Jr., the patriarch of the renowned first family of jazz in New Orleans and beyond, only months before George's passing. I conducted the interview in Snug Harbor's small second floor office just prior to the first set of Marsalis' regular Friday night performance there. George sat at the computer in the corner of the office, half browsing the web for music news and half listening to our discussion. He affectionately referred to Marsalis as "Coach," a term that reflected the impact that the jazz educator had on so many young musicians.
After the interview, I asked Brumat to give his assessment of the significance of having a legendary musician such as Marsalis on the regular schedule at his club. "He's the man who put this place on the map. He's the franchise," said Brumat emphatically. Their mutual admiration was wonderfully evident.
Pat Jolly, a local photographer, arts educator, all-around New Orleans cultural aficionado, and self-proclaimed "jazz junkie" had a bird's-eye view of the birth of Brumat's dream and of the subsequent evolution of Frenchman street over a period of nearly three decades. Her affection for her friend grew from the early stages of that experience.
"It was so exciting to have this place that was away from the maddening crowd that had all of this great jazz," said Jolly. "New Orleans was a 24-hour town in those days," she added. "(The club) never had music until 1 am through 5 am. We lived in the nighttime then. I felt like it was free of tourism. It was the undiscovered thing. It was the real New Orleans. There were these extraordinary jams that would happen until 8 in the morning, after everybody was finished playing (the scheduled performance). There was a lot of magic that was in that music. It sort of created this home away from home feel.
"He's always been fair (with the musicians)," Jolly said of Brumat's reciprocity toward the artists he hired. "It was sort of like a 'socialist, share the wealth' program. If he made more money, then they got more money. If he made less, then they still got what he agreed to pay them."
Perhaps Brumat's generosity toward the musicians he hired stemmed from his appreciation for what the music that he loved did for his own emotional well-being.
"George's taste was impeccable. He had this extraordinary ear for solos and innovation," she explained. "George was very gruff, but he had this extraordinary tender side that I think the music was pulling out of him, because when he was running Port of Call (a local restaurant without live music), that wasn't happening. It (Snug Harbor) gave him his home in life. Then all of that gentleness came out."
Jolly added that Brumat had no family in the immediate area, and that the club, its musicians, and its patrons filled that void.
"The music community was totally his family," she confided. "It's an amazing thing to watch love grow. That's what happened. It didn't matter if some of the musicians were troubled. He was still there to be the father figure and guide them through it, give them whatever they needed, and to make sure that they were fed.
There were so many things that needed to be done that nobody knew about back then. He was there with the hugs, the money, the work, the contactshe stepped right up and never wanted any kind of accolades for anything."