In 1938, a quarter of a century after its maiden voyage, the four stack passenger liner S.S. Leviathan arrived at the scrap yard under its own power, leaving only a few photographs and the ethereal “Arabianna” as recorded by its Orchestra as tokens of its once grand splendor. Thirty-one years after it was first organized, the New Leviathan Oriental Fox-Trot Orchestra continues full steam ahead under its own curious power, helmed by irrepressible New Orleans artist George Schmidt.
Those who mourn the recently departed ghosts of the past might choke up slightly as they pass the crossroads of St. Charles Avenue and Julia Street. The dive bars and flophouses that once defined the area have gradually faced gentrification while its most identifiable landmark, the Hummingbird Hotel and Grill, is currently being gutted to house the local offices of the McIlhenny Company, bottlers of Tabasco sauce. George Schmidt, painter, banjoist, gallery owner and American individualist, has lived in the neighborhood since 1976 and he’s not shedding any tears. Schmidt misses ghosts from the past probably more than any one, just not some of the ones he’s had to live among. “This is a weird place,” he says of the neighborhood. “It’s like the swallows coming back to Capistrano. People come back saying, ‘What happened to the Camp Inn? It’s gone!’ I say, ‘Yeah, things are changing around here.’ People want change but when change happens, it’s the wrong kind of change,” he hammers convincingly. “‘Oh, we didn’t mean that!’”
As he drives his point home with a disarmingly inarguable command of history, two ladies from out of town come into the gallery to ask directions. They’re in New Orleans to research their great grandfather, Confederate General John Bell Hood, who died in the yellow fever epidemic of 1878. “When I was a kid I used to walk past the Hood House and practically genuflect,” Schmidt tells them, “thinking ‘General Hood died here.’” It’s a classic Schmidt moment made all the more so by the fact that he obviously doesn’t consider this slight coincidence to be anything out of the ordinary. They’re wondering how Hood met their great-grandmother, Anna Marie Hennen. Schmidt shares what he knows about the Hennen family before the ladies sign his guest book and bid goodbye. “We just walked in out of chance,” says one of them, “but it was more than that. We were meant to be lost.”
WE’RE THE BOYS FROM NEW ORLEANS
Schmidt and his next door neighbor, preservationist Jack Stewart, who has also been on Julia since 1976, refer to their neighborhood by its traditional name, “The American Sector.” Schmidt’s gallery is decorated with paintings that recapture famed scenes from the city’s past in stunning detail, while Stewart’s many projects have included preserving both Jelly Roll Morton’s childhood home and historic Precision Hall, as well as researching and writing countless articles on early Crescent City music. But more than anything else, the pair of friends are best known for the 18-piece musical aggregation that they founded in 1972, the New Leviathan Oriental Fox-Trot Orchestra.
Ageless underground rock guru Kim Fowley—whose first hit, 1960’s “Alley-Oop,” was the result of a gas station full of hillbillies and a pay phone in a Hollywood parking lot—recently decided that New Orleans didn’t hold the key to rock ‘n’ roll’s future and vacated his corner office on St. Charles and Julia, returning to Los Angeles. As the notes of the New Leviathan’s weekly rehearsal float liltingly through the evening air, one wonders whether Fowley was perhaps listening for the wrong kind of musical revolution. It’s tempting to picture him leaving his office after another day of pursuing the imagined great lost link between Dale Hawkins and King Creole and being struck by the slight wisps of the Orchestra pursuing the very real lost link between Russian composer César Cui and jazz bandleader Paul Whiteman. For a man whose street level A&R skills once consisted of hanging out in L.A.’s Greyhound bus depot and approaching anyone he saw carrying a guitar case, it would have been nothing short of poetic for Fowley to have made his most off-the-wall discovery while waiting for the street car in front of the Hummingbird.
The Orchestra’s repertoire of rags, marches, two-steps, fox trots and traditional jazz and blues pieces doesn’t remotely resemble rock ‘n’ roll, but their unstoppable passion has most bands—whatever their genre—dead and buried before they can even get out of the garage. The east wall of their upstairs rehearsal room is crammed with a row of file cabinets that contain over 25,000 pieces of sheet music awaiting rediscovery.
After warming up with a robust “Some Of These Days,” they launch into an upbeat Joe “Coon” Sanders number entitled “Brainstorm.” The ancient yellowed sheet music that the band members are reading from describes the song aptly as “An erratic blues.” “For a song we haven’t seen in a long time, that’s pretty good” says director Greg Merritt before calling the next number, “Love Will Find A Way.” The uproarious rumbling of objection that follows paints an aural picture of collective agony. Choruses of groans are overlapped with a painful “Oh God,’ and from Schmidt himself: “Rotten! Oh, please don’t. That’s just 15 minutes wasted.” Suddenly someone yells “Take it out the books, pass it in!” There is much general approval and gleeful repeating of the hallowed phrase. “One third of this stuff is coming out of these books,” someone states emphatically, “one way or another in the next month.” A brief campaign is nearly started to take “Lady Of Spain” out as well, but it doesn’t generate quite the same turmoil.
Finally they settle on Jelly Roll Morton’s “Wolverine Blues,” before delving into a series of rags that they’re preparing for their next album, tentatively entitled New Orleans Before Jazz. The first is “Come Clean,” a march two step from 1905. Trombonist John Craft sketches the song’s slightly weird structure out, so that “Next time it’s called, people aren’t having strokes all around me.” When he’s finished, Stewart announces that “The most important thing you’ve got to remember about this piece is it was written by everybody’s favorite New Orleans composer, Paul Sabrebresole. Who we now have a picture of!” Three more New Orleans rags follow; “Snake Rag,” “Jolly Molly” and “Roustabout Rag”—also a Sabrebresole composition.
“Oh, Jack?” intones Craft from across the room. “What is the historical significance of ‘Roustabout Rag’?”
“‘Roustabout Rag’ was one of six rags published in the United States simultaneously,” Stewart states automatically, fulfilling his role of Orchestra historian. “They were the first six ragtime pieces ever published. It also has the distinction of having three types of syncopation simultaneously whereas none of the other rags get three types of syncopation until 1911. So it’s years ahead of its time.”
“We’ve got over 250 orchestrations that we play right out of the book,” says Schmidt of the Orchestra’s repertoire. But what of the Oriental bent? “Many of them are commercial, Tin Pan Alley-type songs that have a verse that’s Oriental sounding and a chorus like a regular song. All of them refer constantly to 19th-century Romantic European music.” In this way the repertoire shares a parallel with the German ship that the Orchestra draws its name from. First launched in 1913 as Vaterland, it was seized by the United States during the First World War and re-christened the S.S. Leviathan just as Oriental-themed pieces by Russian composers like Tchaikovsky and Cui were being seized upon by commercial songwriters in America. “It was a cheap way of thinking you were getting cultivated and not having to go to the symphony,” says Schmidt.
“The music is goofy and it’s funny and it makes you feel great but there’s a certain amount of cynicism to what we’re doing. Thirty years ago we were (still only) forty years away from the music. Now it’s getting kind of weird because it’s becoming a form of classical music. I had a guy come up to me at a job saying ‘Why don’t you play something old?’ I said ‘Old? This is from 1926.’ He said, ‘No, old, like from 1940.’(!) We’re playing music that nobody listens to, can’t even dance to anymore; they don’t know how. We sound very exotic now because what we’re doing is so out of sync that people don’t know what to think.”
A big reason for the disparity, he notes, is the difference between monophonic and polyphonic musical styles, of which Schmidt clearly prefers the polyphonic variety. Unlike many of his peers, his views didn’t conveniently develop after a youth spent listening to Led Zeppelin merged into an adulthood of hating rap music.
“I felt that way back in the ’50s,” he exclaims humorously. “I remember when rock ‘n’ roll started, I was in the third grade. This friend of mine said ‘My brother just bought something called a rock ‘n’ roll record.’ I said ‘What’s that?’ He said, ‘You want to come hear it?’ I said ‘Yeah.’ So I walked over to his house and he played it, a 78. It was some tune by Bill Haley and the Comets. I listened to it and I said, ‘I don’t like it.’ And I never liked it. I never even learned to like it. I’ve had to fuck to it, I’ve had to eat to it, it’s completely dominated my life and it’s really made me quite miserable. I’m the ultimate victim; I was born in the wrong time. So a part of the point of the Orchestra is to get back at ’em. Just to divorce yourself from it and not to seal yourself off, but to aggressively fight back: ‘OK, you’ve got that, well we’ve got this!’”
WHEN YOU’RE SMILING
The Orchestra’s youthful exuberance for musical ancientry is something that simply can’t be taken sitting down. A recent National Public Radio piece about their latest CD Burning Sands resulted in 2,000 copies being sold in a single week. What NPR listeners were responding to wasn’t just the quirkiness, but the unquestionable sincerity present in all-but-forgotten songs like “Rebecca Came Back From Mecca.” As with any musical archeological dig of any merit though, a fine line exists in the execution.
“I talked to this fellow who said ‘You really sound like those people. You’re not imitating them, you’re not making it up, you’re not trying to sound like those people, you really do.’ Another friend of mine said ‘It’s really funny because you take it so seriously. You actually play this music—well!’ Well, I really believe in it. Leonardo said: ‘Art fails when a concept out-strips the performance.’ You can’t make fun of it while you’re doing it, you have to take it seriously. You can’t suddenly start playing coy and cute with it. Years ago I saw this vaudeville show and I just cringed to see this person hamming it up and indicating that he was in 1925, not really being in 1925. Laughing at your music is like laughing at your own joke. And the thing is,” Schmidt concludes with a smile, “it’s really not a joke. When I was a kid I was making a movie with my cousins. I had costumes, I’d built some sets, I had an eight millimeter camera and my cousins said ‘We’ve got to go now, we’ve got to stop playing.’ I said ‘This isn’t play, this is real! Are you kidding?!’”
I AIN’T GONNA GIVE NOBODY NONE O’ THIS JELLY ROLL
George Schmidt describes a cartoon tacked to the band’s rehearsal room wall that pictures an angry mob gathered in front of a door, behind which hide a tuba player and a banjo player. “I’ve been laughed at in the Orchestra because I play the banjo, but the banjo—and the tuba—are the very instruments you identify with that period.” Schmidt played the latter while marching with the De La Salle High School band.
“My friend Charlie Childress said, ‘You don’t want to take P.E. do you?’” remembers Schmidt. “I said, ‘Are you kidding, exercise?’ He said, ‘Well, why don’t you join the band? I’ll introduce you to Brother August, he’s the band master. Brother August was a short, fat, bald-headed Frenchman. He says, ‘OK Schmidt, you play the tuba, I teach you to play tuba.’ I got into the band so I wouldn’t have to exercise but in the end that wasn’t true, I had to carry a 30-pound metal instrument on my back every Mardi Gras. Brother August would say, ‘We don’t play with the flambeaus, I don’t want my uniforms to be burned by the flambeaus!’ So we’d play these lousy yat parades during the day across the river. And the tuba was like a moving target, people would throw peanuts into it and all. Once we were playing at a football game out at City Park with Warren Easton High School. They were rough, like the last gasp of the urban white peasants; they all wore ducktails with cigarettes rolled up in their sleeves. After the game we had to march through a cypress forest to get to the band truck and I’m the last one because the tuba’s always in the back. And these punks from Warren Easton are standing there: ‘Get the fruit with the tuba!!’ So I start running and I’m hitting the cypress trees with the tuba, Bang! Bonk! Brother August is in the band truck, yelling ‘Faster, Schmidt! Faster!’” He collapses with laughter and immediately regains his composure. “De La Salle wasn’t what you’d call an artistic school, you were trained to be a supermarket manager, essentially. So the only outlet you had was with the band. And we played some pretty difficult stuff, like Schubert’s ‘Unfinished Symphony,’ a lot of Cui and a lot of Rimsy-Korsakov, really heavy duty stuff. We played it badly, but at least we played it.
“My mother was one of those people who fell in love with instruments, like the marimba. So I took the marimba for awhile, then the drums. Then she met this fellow John Chaffe, who was a 16-year-old kid going to Tulane and studying physics. And he played the banjo. John was probably the most brilliant musician in the city of New Orleans. It was a tragedy because he was an upper class New Orleanian playing what was essentially a lower class instrument and nobody took him seriously. The licks he would get in on the banjo were real musical, it wasn’t just cornball strumming. Beautiful single string passages, just uncanny sounds. Marimba, drums and the banjo. I never learned to play any of them well, but John finally sold me his old banjo.”
OUR CALL OF THE FREAKS
Schmidt was studying art at Tulane when he became acquainted with one Justin Winston, who also went by the nom de plume Faruk von Turk. “Justin used to be the curator for the Jazz Museum and his specialty was popular culture,” says Schmidt of Winston, who, coincidentally, is currently writing a book about the banjo. “The New Orleans Jazz Club used to produce a radio show every Sunday night and it would be broadcast all the way up to Canada. My mother would organize the script and Harry Souchon would read it over the air. That’s where I met Jack. Around 1970 Jack and Justin did a show on the influence of the Orient on jazz music. Harry didn’t want them to do it, he was really worried about it, but (nevertheless) he read it over the air. Well, they got the most mail of any show that they ever did, people just went crazy. I said ‘Wouldn’t it be neat to organize an orchestra that could actually play this stuff?’ The idea wasn’t just to put on a show that demonstrated the origins of the Oriental Fox-Trot in American popular culture, but to make fun of the ragtime revival that was going on at the same time with that movie The Sting, where they were playing ‘The Entertainer’ over and over again. We had a big show at Dixon Hall and packed the house, top and bottom. It was 22 pieces, we’ve actually gotten smaller. And Justin recorded it with a reel-to-reel tape recorder he set on top of a chair. It really came out beautifully so we made a record out of it (An Oriental Extravaganza). We called it our white album, it was a really cheapo production that can’t be gotten anymore. Jack and I wrote a narrative and people laughed—as they should have—and we had slides, old sheet music, it was a lot of fun.”
The Orchestra’s next move was to use their newfound popularity to help save the Saenger Theater, which was being threatened with demolition. “We used to have these shows there at midnight, the first one was called ‘The New Leviathan Oriental Fox-Trot Orchestra Plays With The Biggest Organ In Town.’ A friend of mine had found a huge reel of porno movies from the 1920s, so we showed porno films and we played along with them. It was really funny, I mean it brought down the house. Eventually we organized a group that saved the theater.” For Schmidt, it was a personal crusade as well as a historical one. “My aunt Millie used to sing at the Saenger, they had a Miss Personality contest and she won it and started working their whole circuit. She was gorgeous, a young flapper type, she looked like Vivian Leigh. She would stand on top of the organ when it rose out of the pit and they’d throw a big spotlight on her. So we recreated that when she was in the audience. As a child I used to imagine what it would have looked like, what she would have looked like, how it would have been…essentially a family is a culture-bearing institution. You develop a sense of the past; that you’ve emerged out of something. You weren’t there, but you were part of it, you came out of it.
“My aunt had a scrapbook of her work as a singer and that was one of her publicity shots,” says Schmidt of the photograph used so effectively on the cover of the Orchestra’s I Didn’t Mean Goodbye. Surrounded by memorabilia from the Mistick Krewe of Comus, jade jewels, a porcelain doorknob and a portrait of the Kaiser and Kaiserene, the picture is clutched in a pair of withered hands that give the impression of 70 years of heart-breaking regret. The hands belonged to Schmidt’s father. “I didn’t want to just have the picture on there, I wanted the feeling that somebody was looking at it, saying ‘I Didn’t Mean Goodbye.’ So I got dad to pose for it.”
IN MY HAREM
I Didn’t Mean Goodbye not only broke ground as a grand concept—Stewart’s liner notes, complete with maps, photos, news clippings and a bibliography serving as a masterful tome on New Orleans’ once-vibrant Tin Pan Alley scene—it marked the final and full convergence of Schmidt’s greatest loves: history, music and art. “I’d done all this research and we were doing this music,” he says. “And I had this wonderful book called The Family Album Of Jazz by Edmond Souchon and Al Rose. I’d get some beer and peruse this book back and forth, looking at the faces and the bands. And it was like a Ouija board almost. I’d take my fingers and drag them over the photographs, communing with the dead. I didn’t need access to the Jazz Archive because I had this wonderful book! It was this whole unified theory of New Orleans jazz. The first history paintings I did were Buddy Bolden’s Nervous Breakdown, Sarah Bernhardt Meeting The Razzy-Dazzy Band, John Robichaux In The Japanese Room At Antoine’s and The Naked Dance.”
It was Rose’s book on Storyville photographer Ernest Bellocq that spurred Schmidt to do his most notorious painting. Rose made mention of something called the Oyster Dance and Schmidt, already having done a painting of Bellocq in action photographing a prostitute, began to make preliminary sketches of what he imagined it would have looked like: “A bunch of Johns sitting around the living room at this house of ill repute, a nude woman and a plate of oysters. It was a commission for a friend of mine and it was going to go in his dining room, hence the food theme. I thought it would be kind of vulgar to have pussy hair showing in the dining room so I had her holding an oyster in one hand and covering herself with the other. Once in a while my mother’s maid would come over and clean up a little bit. So she came into my painting room and said, ‘Oh George, that sure is some dirty picture. I knew that woman, her name was Buckeye Hannah. I lived in that neighborhood on Iberville Street. And that’s not what she did with the oysters, George, she’d take a dozen oysters and put ’em up her snatch and then shoot ’em out at the audience.’ And I said, ‘Well, Jesus, Mary and Joseph!’ Another week went by and then my father came by. ‘The Oyster Dance! Buckeye Hannah! We used to see her on Iberville Street at a place called Uncle Tom’s Cabin.’ He told me that in the backyard they put on a sex circus with midgets and donkeys and she would come out with a dozen oysters! Then I looked at the picture and the way I have her hand it looks like she’s putting one up her snatch. I realized I didn’t have to change a thing. When you’re a history painter you want to get it right and intuitively, it came out. It’s still hanging in my friend’s dining room.”
WAITING AT THE END OF THE ROAD
While immersed in painting a commission of six pictures on the history of Mardi Gras Schmidt had the experience that’s bound to keep him painting for the rest of his life. “I had to do some research because they were real events,” he says of the paintings. “Papa Laine’s Band lining up at the Rex Parade, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Louis Armstrong at Zulu. So I went back and I looked at every single photograph that the Historic New Orleans Collection could bring me on Carnival and related subjects. Over a good three months I just spent the whole day looking at this stuff; the New Basin Canal where Louis came in with Zulu, band pictures, parades, houses, the whole thing. Well, one night I had a dream that was so vivid that when I woke up I started crying because I thought it was really happening. I was sitting on the street car holding a box of Cracker Jacks and I looked up and this fellow got on with a boom box. And I thought, ‘Oh, the ’80s…’ I looked into the Cracker Jack box and there was this little person in the box. He said, ‘Hey George! Come on down in the box, I want to introduce you to somebody!’ So I got inside the box and I fell out of the bottom into the same seat of the street car. Except it was now an old Brill street car, it wasn’t a street car like we’re used to. So I looked out the window and this fellow says ‘Good to see you George, I’m [late photographer and antiquarian] Leonard Huber. Guess where we’re going? We’re going to see the Rex Parade.’ So we got off the street car and watched the Rex Parade, it was the same parade that I was painting. There are photographs of the floats taken at the corner of Terpsichore and St. Charles, but here I was standing on the ground watching the same floats go past. In Technicolor! I said, ‘Jesus, this is great. I’m actually here! It’s 1905!’ Then he said ‘How would you like to go down to watch it on Canal Street?’ I said ‘Canal Streetin 1905?’ So we got into an electric car and motored down to Iberville Street. Suddenly I realized we were parking in Storyville. And it was all there, I could see the houses, I could see the skyline of the old city. Mr. Huber says ‘Well, if you’re that enthusiastic let’s go see (famed madam) Lulu White.’ So we actually went through the back gate into the kitchen—he had a key—and there were all the whores having coffee and doughnuts before they went to Canal Street. They’re all dressed like jockeys and baby dolls. And he says ‘Girls! I want you to meet my friend George Schmidt!’ They said ‘George Schmidt? The George Schmidt?’ He says ‘Yeah, the history painter.’ So this one whore comes up and says, ‘Mr. Schmidt, I want to thank you so much for doing those pictures of us.’ And I said ‘Oh, how sweet.’ Then she raises her leg and rubs her bush up and down my leg! I was so startled by it I woke up and thought ‘Oh my God, this isn’t real?!’
“I told a friend of mine about it and he said, ‘George, you were visited by the white goddess; you had a visit from your muse.’ I said ‘You’re right! That’s exactly what it’s all about. I was there and it was real and that was the muse! Very few people get that privilege.
THE HOODOO MAN
“When I do a painting that’s the dead living again,” he says, quoting a favorite obscure book from 1430. “When you play an old record that’s the dead living again. It’s a poetic experience that goes beyond just the fact of the music itself, it’s deeper. When I listen to the New Orleans Owls I think of Red Mackie standing in the studio on Canal Street playing through a big horn. But you’re not supposed to do that. Just like you’re not supposed to be doing narrative painting; you’re supposed to be going toward some kind of great confrontation with an abstraction.
“A friend of mine once said ‘Maybe you should be a performance artist.’ I said ‘I’m not that type, I’m a reactionary.’ History painting was wiped out by Impressionism, but I’m going back to it, it’s the only way I can do it. I look backwards, that’s where I get the joy, that’s why I enjoy the Orchestra so much. It’s all the past, it’s all really the past. It’s history. I mean, that’s what it’s all about.”