Ralston Crawford and Jazz — on display at the New Orleans Museum of Art now through Sunday, October 14 — contains a variety of classic New Orleans photographic images, a dozen of which were used on the covers of a 12-LP music series created in 1961 by Riverside Records. Printer’s proofs of the album covers for that series, “New Orleans: The Living Legends,” constitute a central visual element of the more than 150 paintings, prints, photographs, and films collected in the ground-breaking exhibition. But music lovers may also be interested to know that “New Orleans: The Living Legends” — re-released on CD in 1994, but only partially available today — contains what is easily the finest, most wide-ranging and most compelling series of recordings of old-time New Orleans music ever made as a result of the original traditional New Orleans jazz revival.
The albums were recorded at a meeting and dance hall belonging to La Société des Jeunes Amis, a Creole fraternal society founded not long after the dissolution of Reconstruction and the rise of what become known as the Jim Crow era. Located on Dumaine Street near the corner of N. Villere Street, the hall was a classic of its kind, compact and proud, its stout, neo-classical façade fitting without discord in a Treme neighborhood composed mostly of Creole cottages. The hall’s shoebox-shaped interior was mostly a large, open space equipped with a small balcony at the rear where the band would play for dances. The musicians felt at home there, reports series producer Chris Albertson (author of Bessie, a biography of Bessie Smith), and on many of the recordings the resonance of the raised, wood- frame building can clearly be heard responding to the volume of the music.
For the “New Orleans: The Living Legends” series, Albertson completed nine sessions in one week, including five by bandleaders who would become regulars at Preservation Hall: pianist “Sweet” Emma Barrett the Bell Gal; trumpeter Percy Humphrey; pianist Billie and trumpeter DeDe Pierce; trombonist “Big” Bill Robinson; and trumpeter “Kid” Thomas Valentine. Albertson also did a session with clarinetist Louis Cottrell, then playing in “Big” Jim Robinson’s band, backed only by bass and guitar. Lovely, elegant, and swinging, the Cottrell tracks remain among the most memorable of the entire series.
Ralston Crawford was hired to shoot cover photographs for the series and attended every recording session. But when it came time to design the covers, art director Ken Deardoff decided to use cover photos from Crawford’s existing portfolio— nearly all streetscapes of time-worn and weather-beaten buildings with an ever-present texture of unpainted, silvery-gray wood siding. The photos are notable for their lively and careful compositions as well as for their “flat” sense of perspective; nearly all were taken holding the camera parallel to the flat surface being photographed. This is the link between Crawford’s photographs and his painting and printmaking: a flattening of perspective that anticipates post-modern art movements like Pop art.
But for music lovers, and especially for those caught in the thrall of old-time New Orleans jazz, it’s the content of the photographs that captures the imagination. In the world of Crawford’s photographs, New Orleans is an evocative, deteriorating remnant of the past, remaining noble while almost completely forgotten by the modern world. (It’s useful to keep in mind that while Chris Albertson was recording in New Orleans, Riverside producer Orrin Keepnews was in New York recording Cannonball Adderley.)
For Crawford and all those music lovers who revered the New Orleans old-timers, these photographs were a visual complement to the music. In one of the most telling examples, an elegantly composed shot of a seriously dilapidated front stoop bears this caption: “Steps of Mrs. Joe Oliver’s home in New Orleans. Ralston Crawford says he wanted to photograph Mrs. Oliver. She declined because her hair was not fixed properly. He felt her steps tell a lot of her story.”
The New Orleans Jazz Revival began with a series of records issued throughout the ’40s and into the ’50s by researcher and New Orleans jazz advocate Bill Russell on his independent American Music label (which is now owned by George H. Buck and has been incorporated into his GHB Records/Jazzology catalog). After Riverside, Atlantic Records came to town to record some of the “real stuff” themselves; an archival set of this material was issued a decade ago on the Mosaic Record label. And once Preservation Hall was up and running, proprietor Allan Jaffe started recording a New Orleans jazz revival series of his own (thankfully reissued on CD by second-generation honcho Ben Jaffe). All three are essential listening and contain cornerstone jazz-revival recordings, but none comes close to matching the free-spirited, wide-ranging and documentary-feel recordings of “New Orleans: The Living Legends”.
Numerous photographers also documented the old-time feel of New Orleans during the 1950s (including a young Stanley Kubrick, then on assignment for Look Magazine), but no one came close to doing what Ralston Crawford did: capturing the deeply felt nostalgia at the heart of the New Orleans jazz revival while presenting it in the form of a sophisticated visual language that spoke directly to the contemporary evolution of art.