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The "Hang" That George Built: The Pioneer of New Orleans' Frenchman Street Music Scene

Craig M. Cortello By

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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 musicians—the 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 contacts—he stepped right up and never wanted any kind of accolades for anything."

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Brumat worked diligently to get the club back up and running. By all accounts, that effort came at the expense of Brumat's physical and financial well being. He understood the importance of the healing powers of music here and of the need of the people of New Orleans to return to familiar routines and places. Though there were not enough patrons back in the community in October of 2005 to adequately support the arts, the music had returned. And that was significant.

"Katrina was the proof in the pudding of his commitment," she said. "After Katrina, he opened the doors, charged no cover charge, and hired all of those bands, so that the musicians could be here and get the bands back together—so that they could have some work, and so people could get away from the devastation of what they were working in and have some live music.

"(Live music) is medicinal. That's one of the truest statements in this city. Music is a huge relief and provides an absence from the heaviness that's in your head and in your heart when you're lifted by this beautiful music. For somebody to step in and do that is incredible—out of your own pocket—to run a club for two years (under difficult financial circumstances). Just to keep those musicians—his family, together. And it's the same thing that a father would do for his dozen kids. He was an amazing man."

Jolly discussed the significance of Snug Harbor in terms of spawning the thriving music scene of current day Frenchman St.

"It (Snug Harbor) spearheaded the Frenchman St. that is," she proclaimed. "The Dream Palace (the other significant live music venue on Frenchman St. in the eighties) was sort of a 'hippy-dippy' spot. Snug Harbor brought in the broader audience that jazz does. I did feel like it was essential—plus the fact that George opened a restaurant. There was a late night place where people could go to eat. So that helped sustain things.

"New Orleans as a city still functions as a very tiny community. (In the early days) Frenchman St. was totally a local hang. It's been discovered by the world, and it's there for everybody. There are still clubs that you can meander into without even paying a cover charge. That's sort of an out-of-towner's dream—to be able to walk around and explore, hear a few different groups, and make a decision based on what you like rather than what you're reading. When you read something in a tourism magazine, how could you possibly even know what kind of music to expect? There are so many forms of jazz. Just because it says jazz doesn't mean it's going to appeal to your sensibilities. It has that 'being part of a community feeling.

"New Orleans has a synchronicity that exists like no place else in the world," she explained. "If I'm out of town for a month, I can come home, stand on the corner of Chartres and Frenchman, and within five minutes I will see somebody I know. And by the time I get home I've been to three gigs and a party. It's really magical in how all of that synchronicity exists in a powerful way."

We are fortunate that Brumat was able to capture many of the premier performances from the club's iconic artists in the months just prior to and following Hurricane Katrina, a collection that is now available on DVD. That documentation had become his last passion, as his office became a video editing station.

"Sometimes there's a kind of closure in somebody's life," said Jolly. "I felt like that video project in retrospect was a closure for George, because it produced this product that they sell at the club that shows off all of his favorite 'children.'"

After Brumat's passing, local musicians and music advocates started a jazz scholarship in his name. Given the fact that the relationship between musicians and club owners can sometimes turn antagonistic or even exploitative, it's safe to say that this level of admiration is rare.

"It was his love that was infectious for the community," Jolly concluded. "He had such a great love for the community at-large that you felt it when you were in his place."

For an art form such as modern jazz to endure, given the challenges in terms of its commercial appeal and mainstream popularity, there must be advocates who believe in its merits. Educators, patrons, consumers, and other enthusiasts who will never get their names on marquees or receive the accolades which they deserve must help provide its sustenance and nurture its evolution. In that regard from a New Orleans jazz historical perspective, George Brumat and his legacy stand tall.

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