A December day in the life of Pat Jolly included attending the Jefferson City Buzzard’s Christmas party and a stop at the McKenna Museum for the opening of the Mardi Gras Indian Hall of Fame’s Queens Rule exhibit. That evening, she headed to Frenchmen Street for vocalist John Boutte’s set at d.b.a., walked a couple of doors down to Snug Harbor to check out fretman Don Vappie and clarinetist Evan Christopher’s Storyville Centennial Project, crossed the street to the Spotted Cat to catch keyboardist/vocalist Davis Rogan, and returned to d.b.a for bluesman Little Freddie King.
That may seem—and actually is—remarkable, though not for Pat Jolly. This year’s Heartbeat Award recipient is simply avid about the music and culture of her hometown of New Orleans. While she is best known as a photographer, she’s also renowned as a jazz fan and supporter. A woman who has worn many hats—including silly ones that she and her friends don for her famous birthday parties—Jolly has also worked as a booking agent and art teacher in area schools and recreation programs.
“A photographer is only as good as the community they live in,” Jolly declares. “What I photograph just unfolds before my eyes. I couldn’t live in a better place to have such interesting subjects be a part of my life.”
Jolly doesn’t go to performances and gallery openings merely to take pictures and document occasions. She’s engaged in what’s going on and the people who are making it happen—she’s part of it.
“If I’m shooting Mardi Gras, I am in costume and my spirit is totally involved with and participating in the events that I’m photographing,” says Jolly, a lover of masquerading. “I’d be there in a costume if I didn’t have a camera. At shows, I generally know every musician on stage and they’re friends of mine. What they’re doing is part of my life and what I want to know about.”
Her early childhood musical memories include the sound and joyful spectacle of Sunday afternoon social aid and pleasure second lines, like those she would photograph later in life.
“We would be driving and there would be traffic jams and my mom would pull over and we’d enjoy the parades,” says Jolly, who remembers that music always filled their house. Her mother had a fondness for big band music, classic New Orleans jazz and Elvis Presley.
“My first records were 45s that my mother bought me—they were all Elvis Presley,” she says, laughing. “She loved Elvis Presley and took me to see him filming King Creole in the French Quarter and the lakefront.”
There was a time when Jolly was around 12 that she told her mother she was tired of hearing tunes like “The Saints” and “St. James Infirmary. “I thought jazz was traditional jazz—so I didn’t think I liked jazz,” she remembers. In her early teens she preferred the rhythm and blues of the Showman, Ernie K-Doe and Irma Thomas.
After a time, her head got turned around and she began following her jazz muse. Jolly starting going to the Old Absinthe Bar where her friend, bluesman Luther Kent, led his 10-piece band. When everybody left the stage, four members would stay and play. They were pianist David Torkanowsky, bassist James Singleton, saxophonist Tony Dagradi and drummer Johnny Vidacovich—the future Astral Project.
“I became a huge fan of all of them and started going to all their gigs,” Jolly recalls.
“Growing up in New Orleans, you’ve got these poly-rhythmic beats and I kind of get bored if music doesn’t have that. We grow up with that beat. Johnny Vidacovich’s drumming was mesmerizing to me because he was like a ballet dancer—it made it fun to watch visually.”
Jolly credits her grandmother, Mimi (“my guiding light”), for her decades of involvement in a myriad of non-profit organizations and volunteer work.
“One of the things she used to say to me is if that we all hold up a tiny corner of the community, it will all stay up there,” Jolly fondly remembers. “It really has a lot to do with my dedication to community service and why I think about serving rather than making money and what I get out of something.”
For 10 years, she produced Jazz Awareness Month to promote the music at free events around the city and she kept folks informed about goings-on with her legendary pre-internet Jolly Jazz Calendar. Presently, she sits on the board of the New Orleans Women in Music and LadyFest organizations and is active with the Women’s Caucus for Art.
On Twelfth Night, January 6, 2015, Jolly ends her reign as the queen of the Phorty Phunny Phellows. While onboard the St. Charles Avenue streetcar, the Jollylama—the Owl Queen—will hand over her crown to the next female monarch of the krewe.
In the eyes of many in the New Orleans music world, Pat Jolly, who bought her first camera in the mid-’60s, will always wear a crown. It sparkles with her enthusiastic love of the music, people and pictures. So it’s not surprising when she declares, “I’m still taking photos and that still excites me.”