Sweet Substitute Jazz Band performs at The Maison. Photo by Infrogmation of New Orleans via Flickr, reproduced here with permission under the Creative Commons.
Located in the historic Faubourg Marigny at 508 Frenchmen Street, the site of Maison is as diverse as the music that is played within. Subdivided by Marquise Bernard De Marigny, his historic plantation became the first suburb downriver from the French Quarter. Populated over time with a diverse range of people, including descendants from Europe, immigrants, and free people of color, the Marigny and Frenchmen Street were traditionally a mixing pot of people, cultures, and histories (1).
Previously, 508 Frenchmen Street was the home to Ray’s Boom Boom Room Bar, which was open from the winter of 2006 to 2009. After Hurricane Katrina, Ray’s Boom Boom Room changed its focus to promoting live music, as a way “to make sure that all of our musicians stay working and that nobody leaves” the city. This push to ensure that the music culture of New Orleans actually stayed in New Orleans helped develop Frenchmen Street into a “jazz district…where locals want to go” (2). Frenchmen used to be a cluster of working industries, such as furniture production shops and laundromats, and it developed over time into an industry cluster of music for the city.
This vibrant past is still an important part of the essence of Frenchmen Street today, and that is illustrated in the variety of stores and establishments found on Frenchmen Street. Before the current mix of bars and clubs, Frenchmen was “a street with seafood factories, hardware stores, and industrial laundries, where family owners lived above the business” (3). The site of Maison for many years in the 1980’s was the office of William Groves, a local actuary with a passion for collecting. His office resembled “a warehouse gone berserk” filled with all of the antiques, paintings, glass bottles, and other items he collected over his lifetime (4).
Since opening, The Maison has established itself as a prominent musical institution in New Orleans. This bar, restaurant, and music club developed into a multifaceted establishment that currently is intertwined extensively with the music culture of New Orleans. By catering to a diverse crowd and representing a multitude of historic and contemporary music, this bar promotes the importance of the past, present, and future of music in New Orleans and has created a vibrant cultural identity that is intrinsic to the city.
Maison hosts numerous artists and genres of music every week, from classical jazz by some of the City’s best musicians, to some of the Nation’s most popular artists playing funk, hip hop, indie rock, latin, and electric music. Dead Prez, Aurora Nealand and the Royal Roses, The Hood Internet, Mos Def, the Mainline Brass Band are just a few artists who have performed at Maison (http://maisonfrenchmen.com/shows/). Open seven nights a week with three stages, and rarely charging a cover, Maison hosts dozens of shows that attract an assorted audience. By not limiting the type of music, which also translates into the type of crowds attracted, Maison established itself as a cultural center in the musical environment of New Orleans by being inclusive to all types of music and the people who listen.
Not Just A Bar
The Maison does not restrict itself to being just a bar, but is also packed with the other activities that take place within its walls. Famous for their po’ boys, and other food prepared by the restaurant, Maison established itself as a great spot to watch local sports games. The fans of these games “represent[s] a cross section of the Who Dat nation: white, black, and a half-dozen young Common Ground volunteers from the Midwest. Tipitina’s meets Treme” (5). An annual event that occurs at Maison is Nickel-a-Dance, a concert series that “help[s] to remind people that jazz was strictly a dance music up until the 1940’s” by remembering the cultural significance of jazz in New Orleans (6). Started in 1994, this free event is dedicated to bringing the historic element of dance halls to Frenchmen Street. Attracting people of all ages and cultural backgrounds, this event brings together locals of New Orleans and visitors to the city, representing the inclusive nature of Frenchmen Street and Maison as a whole. These specialized events create a sense of community within the city through the medium of music.
Although the wide range of music played at Maison is meant to attract a large audience, not all are interested in listening. A major issue facing most music clubs in New Orleans are residents who are opposed to the loud “noise” that results from a music venue. Like Treme, many areas in the City are being “subjected to a ‘cultural district overlay’ zoning ordinance which only allows certain activities on the street.” This ordinance demands that an establishment that serves alcohol has to be considered a restaurant in order to offer live music. With a few exceptions, the City is attempting to enforce the laws, where previously “everyone has looked the other way” which allowed for the music scene on Frenchmen to flourish. Currently, it is believed that “most of the places who offer music may be doing so illegally” (7).
In March of 2012, this enforcement on Frenchmen resulted in a few establishments, Maison included, to be fined, and shut down for a few nights. The anti-noise activists argue that “they’re not trying to stop the music, they only want the loud music to stop” (Ramsey). Unfortunately, this anti-noise movement is not isolated along Frenchmen, but claimed the vibrant musical history that once filled Treme. A noise abatement campaign launched in the 1990’s in Treme targeted the live music venues in hopes to end the noise by policing. What resulted was a “ downward spiral whereby clubs stopped offering live music, clients began going elsewhere, and business eventually dried up.” (8).
As stated by Matt Sakakeeny, a professor of music at Tulane University, the major problem is “differentiating between what constitutes as ‘noise’ or ‘music’” where some people “interpret music as noise, a public nuisance.” Unfortunately these people were successful in ending the live music venues in Treme because “those who hear music as noise have been effective in enforcing silence.” The loss of these live music venues in Treme has changed the way the second line parade participants experience the area because they have to “call forth memories of people and places that have gone, literally ‘memorial-izing’ them” (Sakakeeny).
As seen with Treme, the enforcement of noise ordinances caused the decline of a historically and culturally vibrant neighborhood where music was at its core. This enforcement is in the earlier stages on Frenchmen, but if it continues, many musical areas could meet the same end. There are other, less culturally invasive ways to reduce the sound. One solution suggested by Jan Ramsey, a writer for Offbeat Magazine, is controlling noise by controlling the crowds, and “if there are no crowds, the music isn’t going to be as loud.” Ramsey further believes that the City is “shooting itself in the foot internationally by not embracing music,” and if the City allows the anti-noise activists to “control our musical culture, [they] will kill it” (Ramsey).
- Greater New Orleans Community Data Center, “Marigny Neighborhood Snapshot,” http://www.gnocdc.org/orleans/7/21/snapshot.html,(accessed 12 November 2012).
- Reckdahl, Katy. “Playing Under the Radar.” Offbeat Magazine, 1 December 2006, (Accessed 12 November 2012).
- Bruce, Taylor. “Meet the Musicians of Frenchmen Street.” Southern Living Magazine, 11 February. 2011, (Accessed 12 November 2012).
- Rohel, Marjorie. “Offbeat Treasures Hold Special Lure for Collector”. Times -Picayune, 27 June 1982.
- Spera, Keith. “A Different Saints Sunday.” Times-Picayune, 19 January 2007, (Accessed 12 November 2012).
- Waddington, Chris. “Nickel-a-Dance Concert Series at Maison Gives All Ages a Chance to Move To the Music”. Times-Picayune, Fall 2001. (Accessed 12 November 2012).
- Ramsey, Jan. “Let’s Just Shut Frenchmen Street Down.” Offbeat Magazine, 14 March 2012, ( Accessed 12 November 2012).
- Sakakeeny, Matt. “Under the Bridge: An Orientation to Soundscapes in New Orleans.” Ethnomusicology Vol. 54, No. 1 (Winter 2010).
This article was originally published on December 12, 2012.