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December 07, 2016
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Forty years and a bar

Six large crystal chandeliers hang from the ceiling of the lobby of Le Pavillion Hotel in New Orleans. Two oak-leaf gilt mirrors rise above marble consoles on either end of the room adding infinite repetitions of the highly decorated scene. At 10 a.m. on the last Monday morning in April, Jazz Festers slowly tumble from the elevators looking for some chicory-laced coffee to rouse them. Most have imbibed more liquid cheer in a weekend than a bartender pours on New Year’s Eve.

When my husband Jim Stratton started coming to Jazz Fest in 1974, he bunked in an apartment above the Maple Leaf Bar on a mattress on the floor with an old sheet for a cover and his balled-up sweatshirt under his head for a pillow. Today we sleep on fresh hotel linens with our choice of pillows. The temperature is controlled by thermostat and heavy drapes keep out daylight until we are ready to rise.

Jim was one of the original owners of a New Orleans music institution known as the Maple Leaf. The “Leaf” as devotees know it, resides not on famous Bourbon Street or even in the French Quarter but in the residential neighborhood known as Carrollton in Uptown. It’s a funky little bar with a wide open dance floor and a stage that has welcomed some of the big names in jazz, R&B and zydeco music in the last 40 years. The dance floor was a Laundromat when Jim and his friends bought the place. They tore down the wall between two storefronts and it became a bar and music venue, hosting the likes of James Booker, Marcia Ball and Walter ‘Wolfman’ Washington from the beginning.

The partners in the “Leaf” didn’t have big dreams and they didn’t have deep pockets. They were a motley crew of young men in their 30s who liked to drink in bars, and they didn’t mind listening to good music while they did. Besides, the music attracted young ladies who liked to dance, and they liked to dance with them.

As Jim tells the story, he was lying on his back in his SoHo loft with a slipped disc when he got a call from his friend Bill Odom in New Orleans. Jim’s first marriage was ending badly and his job in television journalism was being subsumed in a mass media merger. The time was right for a change. When he could move well enough to walk, he high-tailed it down to the Crescent City to find his new partners in a bit of a muddle. Nobody knew how to do much except pour drinks and chat up the ladies, despite advanced academic degrees and other signs of high intellect. They needed someone who could hold a beer in one hand and a hammer in the other. Jim Stratton was their man. He had honed his skills building a loft out of dumpster-procured materials. His partners were more inclined to outright theft than hard labor, but when the local antiques merchant got wind that they had mistakenly purloined a bar from his sidewalk sale, he made them put it back.

So Jim built the bar—or part of it (the story of a 40-year-old bar gets fuzzy here)—and designed an oddly shaped trellis for the bar-back mirror that had been broken by his partners in the course of delivery. Another man may have junked the mirror, but Jim was more cautious of spending than of superstition, so he built around it, carving a rustic frame that disguised the broken glass. Few things have changed at the Maple Leaf but the mirror is gone, perhaps in a bid to luck by the new owner.