David Kunian, Music Curator of the New Orleans Jazz Museum at the Old U.S. Mint, places a Billie and DeDe Pierce 45-rpm record circa 1978 on a tall stack of silver shelving. Occupying the same shelves in the Mint’s “Jazz Tower” archival storage area are a tambourine, hand-painted by Charmaine Neville, an Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong 78-rpm record whose Decca label reads “The Frim Fram Sauce” on one side and Helen Gillet’s “Van Helen cello,” a custom cello painted in red, black and white à la Eddie Van Halen’s guitar.
“Oh, you’re gonna love this,” Kunian says, tugging at the rubber gloves he wears to handle items from the museum’s 37,000-odd pieces of local music history.
Thumbing through the contents of a nearby photo cabinet, he selects a large, ’60s-era photo of Blue Lu Barker and Jeannette Kimball—frequent collaborators whose joint efforts include landmark recordings of “Don’t You Feel My Leg” and “I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate.” In the photo, the singer and pianist pose before a piano and a microphone emblazoned with the call letters “WDSU.”
“That one’s definitely going in there,” he says.
It’s late June and Kunian is in the final stages of curating an exhibition focused on the contributions women have made to New Orleans jazz since the music’s early days. Dubbed Women of Note, the interactive, multimedia exhibit opens with a reception and live trio performance at the New Orleans Jazz Museum on August 3, the day before Satchmo SummerFest kicks off on the grounds just outside the doors.
Women of Note tells its story chronologically through a combination of photos, instruments, promotional posters and programs and classic 45s and 78s. Early artists represented in the exhibit range from the swing harmony–focused Boswell Sisters to lesser known singers who straddled the jazz and blues line in the ’20s like Blanche Thomas. Four listening stations feature recordings including music captured from reel-to-reel tape of live performances hosted by the New Orleans Jazz Club. A video station offers a look at rare footage by the likes of pianist Sweet Emma Barrett, who worked with Oscar “Papa” Celestin, John Robichaux and others before becoming one of Preservation Hall’s first female star players.
Other “firsts” in the exhibit are more modern, like the “Street Kings” sign presented to the Pinettes brass band when the group, comprised entirely of women, won Red Bull’s 2013 “Street Kings” competition.
Pinettes bandleader and snare drummer Christie Jourdain recalls being asked in an interview after the contest what she was going to do now that she’d earned the “Red Bull Street Kings” title. “We’re gonna change that name,” she said at the time.
Speaking to OffBeat in July, she explained, “It’s not cocky, it’s just confidence. I have to change the name.” The sign now reads “Street Queens.”
Another section is dedicated to women who worked behind the scenes of the city’s traditional jazz revival, which contributed to the establishment of Preservation Hall in 1961.
“The [New Orleans] Jazz Club had Myra Menville, Helen Arlt, Carolyn Kolb who were all instrumental in making the museum happen,” Kunian says. “And Preservation Hall had Sandra Jaffe and Barbara Reid. They all make it in there as well.”
As the inclusions of Gillet’s cello and Jourdain’s drum suggest, the exhibit was curated with an eye to New Orleans’ contemporary jazz scene as well as the historical foundation on which that landscape developed.
“If we don’t make it more modern it becomes a museum piece,” he says, before chuckling. “I mean, it is a museum piece because it’s in a museum, but … If we don’t make it any more modern, we’re not going to get any younger or newer people in here.”
Citing items slated for presentation like Aurora Nealand’s saxophone, Courtney Bryan’s scores and photos of Germaine Bazzle, Debbie Davis and Meschiya Lake, Kunian points out he curated the show, in part, with the Mint’s proximity to Frenchmen Street in mind.
“It’s like, ‘Did you like seeing Aurora Nealand’s soprano? She’s gonna play another one of those a block away in two hours and rock the house.’”
In addition to the “Street Queens” sign, the Pinettes, who close out Satchmo SummerFest on Sunday, August 6, at the Cornet Chop Suey Stage, contributed the drum Jourdain left behind when she evacuated for Hurricane Katrina. Friends encouraged her to have it restored, but she opted to leave it in its post-K destroyed condition as a piece of history.
In Jourdain’s eyes, the destroyed drum and edited sign work in tandem to remind viewers—particularly aspiring female musicians—that a successful music career doesn’t come without hard work.
“Besides the storm, adversity is gonna try to knock you out. I want them to walk away knowing if this is something they want to do, then stick with it. It’s hard. We’re women in jazz but we also have full-time jobs and that’s not including what we have when we go home as mothers and wives,” she says.
“When life knocks on the door, you have to be ready to answer it with a Wonder Woman on your chest.”