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Gambit Weekly Jazz and Other Art

By D. Eric Bookhardt

SEPTEMBER 15, 1997:  Storyville: home to the more `passionately nocturnal side of life.'

Well, here we are in the throes of September already, and where did the summer go? Does anyone really know? Summer always drags on and on, and then -- wham! -- what had seemed an eternity is suddenly gone. Yes, it's that old tropical time warp again, the psychodynamics of hurricane season, with or without the deluge.

In the gallery world, September is the lull before the storm, the Art for Art's Sake monsoon with its tidal wave of new shows. It is a phenomenon, but, as an official of the American Institute of Architects recently noted, the whole city is a phenomenon, "the greatest open-air museum in America." He was referring to the architecture, and not just in the Quarter but all over the older areas. Even beyond the architecture, the whole city is a cultural greenhouse. How else could we possibly explain the fact that virtually every New Orleanian is secretly -- if not openly -- an artist, writer or musician?

It is one of life's little enigmas, something to ponder over those occasional moments of meditative contemplation -- or, barring that, over a nice cold pitcher of draft. Such timeless enigmas sometimes turn my gaze to the east, to those regions of eternal mystery, danger and intrigue. Indeed, going east from my native Carrollton on the I-10 to the French Quarter invariably induces an apprehensive chill as visions of crazed tourists and marauding meter maids cause the hairs on the back of my neck to quiver like heat lightning. But these adventuresome trips to the Louisiana State Museum have become something of an annual ritual by now.

Even so, it had been many moons since my last visit to the New Orleans Jazz Museum in the state museum's Old U.S. Mint component on Esplanade Avenue. I hazily recalled some art of a rather grassroots sort, so it seemed as likely a place as any to start an investigation into indigenous creativity. Once there, it all seemed remarkably as it was during my old student days of yore, only now the exhibits are bigger and better and there are more of them. But the same funky informality still prevailed.

There is, in fact, a distinct difference in tone compared to the pristine, if rather austere exhibits at the Cabildo, or the painting show at the Presbytere that we covered last year. While that show featured portraits of solid burghers and society belles, here we see images of salt-of-the-earth marching bands and dance-hall maestros like Jelly Roll Morton and Tony Jackson, "professors" who presided over Storyville parlors and who in time became enshrined as jazz saints of sorts, iconic figures in a city of sacred syncopation.

Jazz art and urban culture at the Louisiana State Museum.

There also is a smattering of interesting newer work by contemporary photographers like Lee Friedlander, Michael Smith, Syndey Byrd and Barry Kaiser. Much of this is under the heading "Not Quite Jazz," which includes Mardi Gras Indians and such. In addition, Indian lore is featured at the adjacent Mardi Gras Museum (which, along with NOMA's splendid Tootie Montana show and its fine photos by Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick, makes for an unprecedented amount of Mardi Gras Indian museum coverage).

Of course, most of the exhibits at the Jazz Museum are made up of vintage musical instruments and posters, along with old photos of the musicians in their native habitat: the various clubs and dance halls where they worked. Included are some of E.J. Bellocq's amazing Storyville portraits and parlor scenes. But an informal tone prevails as various images appear almost helter-skelter on display panels studded with business cards seemingly affixed at random -- as if the ghosts of Paul Barbarin or Danny Barker had just sauntered in and left them during the night.

Even the paintings, while more formally displayed, are of a more earthy sort than those ordinarily seen in the state museum. This is evident in Tony Green's large triptych of highly colorful Storyville scenes. Focusing on a shootout at a whorehouse and a Naked Dance at an opulent bordello, Green's images illustrate the more passionately nocturnal side of historic local lifestyles.

The reference, of course, is to the legend of Storyville as the place where jazz, ostensibly the only true American art form, was born. And while the idea of art and bordellos sounds ironic, was it really? Creation and destruction both involve passion, and this is a passionate place. This also hints at a link between art and Tantra, the central Asian belief that ecstasy, creation and destruction are all related states, and that it is therefore the tone of a person's consciousness that determines the outcome.

Or, as Jelly Roll Morton put it: "If a Naked Dance was called for, Tony Jackson would dig up one of his fast speed tunes, and a girl would dance on a narrow stage. Yes, they danced completely stripped -- but in New Orleans, the Naked Dance was a real art."

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