The scene outside The Free Man during this year's Mardis Gras parade.
The scene outside The Free Man during this year's Mardis Gras parade.
Mike Brooks

The Free Man in Deep Ellum Undertaking Massive Expansion That Will Add Two New Stages

Most people quit their vices the day after Fat Tuesday. But John Jay Myers, frontman of jazz band The Free Loaders and owner of Cajun restaurant The Free Man, isn't most people.

"Right before Fat Tuesday I thought that I'd had enough," he says from a dingy couch in the middle of an empty, unfinished space adjacent to The Free Man on Commerce Street in Deep Ellum.

He decided the best way to test his resolve would be to quit cigarettes, booze and even sodas, before Fat Tuesday came around. It worked.  "When I had probably about two weeks under my belt of not drinking, not smoking, whatever, that's when you open your eyes to things."

In this case, he saw an opportunity in the empty space next door to his restaurant. Earlier this week, Myers officially announced his plans to rent the adjacent space for an expansion of The Free Man, which will include a second kitchen, two more stages, a patio and multiple bars. He expects renovation to take about six months.

"One problem that we've always suffered from is the place is tiny," Myers says.

True to his Cajun roots (his great-great-grandfather was the governor of Louisiana during the Civil War), Myers plans to introduce three separate but connected French Quarter-themed spaces. The original Free Man space will become the "Frenchmen side," a "jazz club with a dark, cool vibe."

With interior renovations, the new space, which Myers dubs the "Bourbon side," will connect to the Frenchmen. The Bourbon side will boast a 24- by 16-foot stage which Myers intends to dedicate mainly to local acts with a mix of influences, including blues, swing and soul. The patio, or "Decatur," will have its own bar and stage.

In a district saturated with new bars, restaurants and venues, Myers nevertheless has an optimistic take on the market. For him it's all about the music experience. "I moved here in '93 or '94 and music was the reason," he says. "With the Rev. Horton Heat, Tripping Daisy and the Toadies, and everybody getting signed, I'm moving. That's where I'm gonna be."

The Free Man's owner, John Jay Myers, plays drums with his jazz band, the Free Loaders. The existing space will focus on jazz, while the new stages will cater to blues, swing and soul.
The Free Man's owner, John Jay Myers, plays drums with his jazz band, the Free Loaders. The existing space will focus on jazz, while the new stages will cater to blues, swing and soul.
Mike Brooks

Myers appreciates the cohesiveness of Deep Ellum, particularly its suitability for barhopping. "It's almost like going to one giant bar," he says. "Deep Ellum itself is the place."

With The Free Man gaining two extra stages, he plans for the venue to be a kind of microcosm of Deep Ellum.  "This place is going to have, at times, three bands playing at one time. Something out on the patio, something right here [on the Bourbon side], and something right there [on the Frenchmen side], and you can walk right through all of it. And that's the thing: Deep Ellum is an expanded version of that same idea."

Myers is banking his life's earnings, $261,000 to be exact, on the success of the expanded venue.  "The first year that we opened The Free Man, I lost $80,000. The second year I lost like $40,000. ... It was a big risk. And now I've basically taken everything I've made off The Free Man and put it into an escrow account to have this happen. It's fully funded right now."

He says it's important for the future of Deep Ellum for vacant spaces attract the right kind of developers –those with a good musical sense. Unfortunately, price is too often the only gatekeeper that matters in the district.

"That's what you run into almost anywhere in Deep Ellum. There's not a lot of people out there with good ideas and musical taste that are going to pop up with $261,000. It's probably just some old dude." He laughs and adds, "As I sit here being old." (He's 48.)

He seems confident in the success of his new venture, but he does have a backup plan. "If this thing is a bust, then I'll be driving a cab in Missouri working for my brother. Everything that I have is in this right now."

Why risk everything on an expansion when The Free Man is doing fine as is? "I want to be in control of part of Deep Ellum's destiny. I want that destiny to be all about music," he says. "Put your money where your mouth is."

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