Wesley Schmidt, the gentlemanly proprietor of Snug Harbor Jazz Bistro and tradition-minded grand marshal of the Storyville Stompers brass band, died April 12 of lung cancer at his home in Mid-City. He was 67.
From Carnival to jazz, Schmidt intersected with, and helped perpetuate, New Orleans music and culture.
He was the driving force behind the creation of the MOMs Ball, a semi-private Carnival season blowout known for its thoroughly bohemian aesthetic. Although leadership of MOMs later passed on to other members, Schmidt remained an active participant, even attending this year’s event despite his illness.
When, in the 1970s, Schmidt became manager of Luigi’s, a long-gone pizza parlor near the University of New Orleans, he hired the Rhapsodizers, a band that included his former college roommate Clark Vreeland on guitar, for a weekly gig on Wednesday nights.
After the Rhapsodizers disbanded, the newly formed Radiators took over the slot; the Luigi’s residency helped establish the band’s local reputation. Years later, the Radiators were often the featured entertainment at the MOMs Balls.
Schmidt found his way to Frenchmen Street back when it was home to only a couple of music clubs and frequented mostly by in-the-know locals. He worked at the Dream Palace, which occupied what is now the home of the Blue Nile.
Snug Harbor proved to be his longest-tenured professional home.
After founding and then selling Port of Call restaurant, George Brumat and several partners opened the Faubourg, a jazz club and bistro in the 600 block of Frenchmen. After buying out his partners, Brumat changed the club's name to Snug Harbor in 1983. Consisting of a restaurant, a bar and an intimate, two-tiered music room, Snug Harbor has endured as New Orleans’ premier club for modern jazz, featuring a broad spectrum of local and touring acts.
Schmidt started at Snug Harbor as an assistant manager, then became general manager.
“George was the night guy. He’d stay all night, every night,” said Jason Patterson, who owns the building that houses Snug Harbor and books the club’s music. “Wesley came in during the day and took deliveries, paid bills, did the accounting. You rarely saw him there at night. He got it revved up every day and then left at 6.”
After Brumat’s death in 2007, ownership of the business passed to Schmidt; a niece of Brumat’s who lives in Italy also received a share of the business. Later, Schmidt’s wife, Nickomus Leiker, became a partner in the business as well.
“Wesley’s role was pivotal,” Patterson said. “He was the perfect person to take over when George passed. Besides knowing everybody and having a good relationship with the staff, he bought into the spirit of what Snug was about.”
Outside of Snug Harbor, Schmidt maintained a performing life of his own as grand marshal of the Storyville Stompers. The Stompers branched off from the more loosely organized Pair-a-Dice Tumblers, a roving, informal band of self-described "marching music therapists" who, starting in the 1970s, periodically cavorted through the French Quarter.
The more regimented Storyville Stompers took their cues from the Olympia Brass Band and other traditional brass bands. They subscribed to decades-old traditions of dress, decorum and repertoire when participating in second-line processions and jazz funerals.
The “commercialization” of second-line parades as spectacle, with gawkers and photographers crowding the marchers, did not sit well with Schmidt. He made clear that, following his death, he did not want a second-line parade in his honor.
“I’m disappointed but not surprised that he didn’t want a second-line,” Patterson said. “At this point, there’s a second-line for everything. He wasn’t comfortable with that. He believed it was supposed to be a certain way.”
Schmidt smoked as a young man, then spent years working in smoky clubs before New Orleans banned indoor smoking. He told few people about his lung cancer diagnosis.
He was initially optimistic that he could beat the disease. As it became clear that he wouldn’t, Patterson said, Schmidt groomed the Snug Harbor staff to take over his responsibilities, ensuring a smooth transition. His wife is now Snug Harbor’s majority owner.
The operation of New Orleans' flagship modern jazz club likely won't change going forward.
“Wesley did a good job of teaching people to do what he did,” Patterson said. “Everything’s running fine. We’re going to carry on the legacy that Wesley was such an important part of.”
The club was closed the day that Schmidt died but reopened the following night. A post on its Facebook page said the club would carry on “with the faith, pride and perseverance upon which Wesley built one of the best jazz clubs in the world.”
Besides his wife, survivors include two sisters, Debbie Schmidt of Baton Rouge and Betty Schmidt Bordelon of New Orleans.
In line with his wishes, no public memorial events are planned.