Once a key feature of the Old U.S. Mint’s exhibition space, the Louisiana State Museum’s internationally renowned Jazz Collection sustained damage during Hurricane Katrina. It was the exhibit’s partial destruction, however, that inspired plans for a much more comprehensive presentation of the museum’s music-related holdings.
“We thought, ‘Do we replace it and make it only about jazz, or do we look at the contributions all of Louisiana has made to music?’” recalls Louisiana State Museum photographer Mark Sidler. “It was an opportunity to recast it.”
The first stage of that recasting will be unveiled at the Mint (400 Esplanade Ave.) on Wednesday, July 30, when the museum opens Keeping Time: Extraordinary Images from Louisiana’s Past, a new exhibition made possible by a donation from benefactor John Cleveland.
Comprised of photos dating back to 1899 and instruments previously owned by some of the state’s most influential musicians, the show features what museum historian Karen Leathem calls a “representative sampling” of the museum’s massive collection of some 15,000 music-related photographs, instruments, film clips and other artifacts.
“While we’re working institutionally on this larger, comprehensive exhibit about Louisiana’s music, we proposed [Keeping Time] to raise awareness about the extensive collection,” says the museum’s Director of Collections Greg Lambousy.
As such, the show expands beyond jazz-related pieces. “We tried to represent several genres,” Leathem explains. “Many of the photos show musicians in their working environments, at Jazz Fest, several are from Bourbon Street bars in the ’50s when there was a lot of jazz there—the Paddock and Mardi Gras Lounge.”
Other images offer a glimpse at some less-conventional music settings—like Michael P. Smith’s shot of Boozoo Chavis playing accordion on the back of a fishing boat while his wife, Leona, steers.
“We also have photos by Rick Olivier, and Elemore Morgan, Jr. who was a painter but also a documenter of Cajun and Creole music in Southwest Louisiana. And we have several from periods past, including Charles Bennett and John Coleman,” Leatham says, adding that Sidler, Skip Bolen and John McCusker have pieces in Keeping Time as well.
In a room adjacent to the photography, a display featuring Louis Armstrong’s first cornet, Sidney Bechet’s soprano saxophone and Fats Domino’s pianos will highlight the museum’s unique program for restoring and conserving musical instruments.
“The most noteworthy piece, perhaps, is [Clarence] Gatemouth [Brown]’s fiddle,” Lambousy muses. “It was discovered after Katrina in the case. It was water-logged and the glue in the joints had disintegrated, but reconstructing it is something we would like to do.”
The price tag on fixing such pieces can be high, though. Lambousy estimates the museum spent $35,000 to conserve a white Steinway piano that once sat in Fats Domino’s family room. “There’s a strong need to raise funds for the conservation of these national treasures,” he says.
Keeping Time opens with a reception at 6 p.m. Wednesday, July 30, followed at 7 p.m. by a free concert by the trio of Joe Krown, Walter “Wolfman” Washington and Russell Batiste, Jr.