Sunday, April 20, 2014

Fantastic French Quarter Fest

So, last weekend was French Quarter Fest, billed as the best free festival in the world, but I assert the best festival in the universe. Last year, a half-million people came and this year, more than 700,000. That's a lot of attendees for a city with population half that size.

I never look at the performance schedule, I just go and see whatever I see. Sometimes I'm surprised by something I wouldn't seek out and like it that way. I was busy early in the day and got a late start. Pulling out of my driveway, there was a miniature firetruck full of kids circling the block. I followed to snap a picture.

I went a couple more blocks and heard a brass band. Driving that direction, I ran into a second-line parade in honor of a resident who had died.

One of New Orleans' peculiar customs is that people wear T-shirts with the deceased's picture on them. Anyway, they were parading through the streets. I hadn't even left my neighborhood yet!

I drove toward the Quarter, parked and walked. It's difficult to get close unless you want to pay $20 for parking. Not me! I walked right down into the heart of the Quarter and listened to bluegrass music and traditional jazz - both great. The latter group had to be from out of state. There were really terrific musicians playing solo or in groups on street corners for tips or a $10 CD as well as on the big stages.

The Slick Skillet Serenaders were terrific.

After doing a tour, I headed back to my car and found the most fun group of all. Locals who had rolled a piano out onto the "neutral ground" in the middle of Esplanade, singing hits from the 1980s. I hung out quite a while though it was clear that they had gotten an early start.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Eccentric New Orleans character passes on

New Orleans artist George Dureau, whose paintings, sculpture and photographs of the human figure in all its forms earned him acclaim and attention around the world and influenced a generation of artists, has died. He was 83.
Arthur Roger Gallery, which mounted a retrospective of his work last year, confirmed Dureau’s death Monday.
Dureau had battled the effects of Alzheimer’s disease the past several years and was under care at a local nursing home. But well into his 70s, he remained a French Quarter fixture, living in the neighborhood and walking the streets where he created much of his most recognizable work.
In 2013friends and colleagues organized what they called a “living estate auction,” selling off much of his belongings and personal art collection, to raise funds for his care.
“George Dureau possesses a singular ability to render the beauty of the human figure in compositions inspired by allegorical scenes from great paintings and sculpture in Western art,” Arthur Roger Gallery said in its description of the 2013 exhibit.
The gallery’s show was just one of many career retrospectives honoring Dureau and his work during a 40-year career.
A 1999 exhibit at the Contemporary Arts Center featured more than 175 photographs.
Dureau’s focus on the human figure drew him international acclaim and attention, including his photographs of nudes, street people and the maimed and deformed.
His paintings and sculptures often drew on mythology, featuring depictions of centaurs, satyrs and nymphs.
Observers often compared his photographs with those of controversial New York photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. In reality, Dureau influenced Mapplethorpe. The two were friends in the early 1970s, and Mapplethorpe admired Dureau’s work so much he even restaged many of the New Orleans artist’s earlier compositions.
Locally, Dureau is also known for a painting depicting Professor Longhair, which became the 1999 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival poster. His major public artworks included the pediment sculpture for Harrah’s Casino on Canal Street and the gates at the New Orleans Museum of Art.
Born in New Orleans, Dureau attended LSU, earning a degree in fine arts. After serving in the U.S. Army, he studied architecture at Tulane University and worked as an advertising and display manager for several department stores while he pursued a career as an artist.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Mardi Gras Indians suit up for Super Sunday

Indians with Mayor Landrieu/Photo: Matthew Hinton, The Advocate

After a 15-year hiatus from masking, a Mardi Gras Indian sewing legend and his queen hit the streets this year in a pair of stunning black suits. Big Chief Tyrone “Pie” Stevenson, 54, chose black feathers for his entire tribe: his Big Queen and life partner, Denice Smith, plus a little chief, four little queens, two flagboys and a medicine man.
On Sunday, the Monogram Hunters tribe dressed at Stevenson’s home in the Gentilly area, then piled into SUVs and pickups bound for A.L. Davis Park in Central City, the starting point for the Indians’ Sunday parade.
The gathering was jam-packed with Indians especially eager to show off their suits this year because their appearances on Mardi Gras Day had been curtailed by heavy rain.
The Uptown procession, sometimes referred to as “Uptown Super Sunday,” is presented annually by the New Orleans Mardi Gras Indian Council on a Sunday close to March 19, St. Joseph’s Night, when the Indians come out in their suits in the evening.
This year’s parade was delayed twice because of rainstorms, putting it at the end of March on what ended up being a gloriously sunny day.
As Stevenson planned, the rays of the sun caught on the gold-metallic lace that edged many of the 3-D elements in his and Smith’s suits. They reflected off the small red mirrors sewn into the suits.

Stevenson chose the somber black feathers, he said, “in homage to everything we’ve been through and to everyone we lost,” including his former leader, Chief of Chiefs Allison “Tootie” Montana, who died in 2005, and his close friend, Big Chief Lionel Delpit, of the Black Feather tribe, who died in 2011.
Black also seemed appropriate as the backdrop for the brightly colored symbols of new life that Stevenson sewed into his suit’s three-dimensional beadwork, including springtime flowers, with petals made of oblong red-rice beads and centers of yellow stone carefully edged with sewn white pearls.
“Like a beautiful flower, that suit almost bursts open in spots,” said Ed Buckner, founding director of The Porch, a 7th Ward cultural organization. “It was as if all the years Chief Pie took off, all the creative ideas he had, all that inspiration went into that one suit.”
The suits were spectacular enough that some Indians even speculated Big Chief Pie had been slowly sewing on his own suit over a few years, creating a scorned “two-year suit” instead of one created entirely within a year’s time, as Indian tradition requires.
Stevenson denied it, saying he started making drawings and cutting cardboard for the suits just after Mardi Gras last year. He and Smith immediately began sewing beads onto the cardboard and in fact threw themselves into the sewing so enthusiastically that the suits were done a few months in advance, he said.
Several years ago, Buckner recruited Stevenson to The Porch, where the chief worked tirelessly teaching his craft to neighborhood children, for what became The Porch’s own tribe, the Red Flame Hunters. Buckner believes it was the young people who inspired Stevenson to mask again, after asking the same question for years: “When can I mask with you?”
Stevenson agreed: The young Indians from The Porch did push him to return. But so did fellow Indians, like FiYiYi Big Chief Victor Harris, who said he saw in his spirit that Stevenson was coming back.
Jerome Smith from the Tambourine and Fan organization told Stevenson he had sat out long enough. “That’s enough of a break,” Smith said to him.
Neighbors also urged him to resume making suits, said his son, Second Chief Jeremy Stevenson: “Every time we’d go to the second line, people would say, ‘You gotta dress, man. We miss you. When are you going to put your suit on?’ ”
For 22 years, like clockwork, Stevenson masked with Tootie Montana’s Yellow Pocahontas, he said, recalling the years in the late 1970s when Montana had more than 100 Indians following him. Montana had formed a tribe called the Monogram Hunters with friends early in his career. But in 1950, he took over the Yellow Pocahontas, the tribe that his great uncle, Becate Batiste, had helped to form before the turn of the 20th century. So in the early 1990s, when Stevenson was ready to form his own tribe, he requested, and received, Montana’s blessing to become the Big Chief of the Monogram Hunters.
The tribe premiered under his leadership in 1992. The following year, the Monogram Hunters marched with 23 Indians. They came out strong for several more years. Then something happened. After 1997, Stevenson quit masking.
Though he has long worked steadily in a French Quarter candy shop, he had teenagers to raise, and his finances felt too tight at that point to spend several thousand dollars on an Indian suit, he said. “It’s hard. You’re taking food off your own table to mask,” he said.
More than that, it seemed his heart wasn’t in it anymore. “I got burnt out,” he said. His nephew, Third Chief Keelian Boyd, saw what his uncle was going through. “His fire went out,” he said.
Though Stevenson wasn’t leading the tribe, the Monogram Hunters didn’t go dormant, said Jeremy Stevenson, who led the Hunters during that time, along with Boyd. “A Monogram Hunter has always hit the streets since 1992. And we always were pretty,” Jeremy Stevenson said.
But some years were tough, financially. Jeremy Stevenson remembered saving beads thrown from Mardi Gras floats and sewing them onto his suit.
At first, Big Chief Stevenson hadn’t wanted to hear about anything having to do with the Indians. But then Boyd asked his uncle to work on his suits with him. Not long afterward, Stevenson started to work with The Porch, and he began to feel a tug inside every year as Mardi Gras approached.
He’d look at the designs he was creating with children. He was proud of the work he was doing with them, and he saw that The Porch’s program was saving youths by pulling them away from the streets. But he began to ask himself, “Where is my suit?”
Last year after Mardi Gras, Smith said, she was tired of hearing people ask when he was coming back. “It’s time,” she told him. “And I’m going to come out with you.”
Soon, it seemed like old times, with pots of red beans bubbling in the kitchen as his small tribe beat tambourines and sang Indian songs together. He and Smith might leave to grab a bite to eat, but then they’d return home, eager to sew.
By Thanksgiving, their tidy Gentilly house was lined with chest plates, aprons, headpieces and feathers.
Smith, a certified nursing assistant, and Stevenson paid their bills and then used anything left to buy beads and feathers, spending nearly $9,000 in all, he estimates. They spent nearly $1,000 just on marabou, the fluffy feathers often used in boas.
He didn’t feel overwhelmed, as he had 15 years ago, when he first put his needle down. “Even if I had a bad day at work, when I touched that design, it was like therapy,” he said. Once again, he felt that he was “sewing with the spirit.”
There is no going back now. Already, Stevenson has drawn and designed next year’s suits, which he promises will be unforgettable.
There will be no more gaps, he said. “Like I told people, ‘If I put a suit on again, I’ll probably mask until I die.’ ”

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Stella shouting contest brings out the beast

By Dan Lawton, New Orleans Advocate 
Eric Cusimano, 26, collapsed to his knees, pulled askew the shoulders of his white tank top and poured the contents of a metallic flask on the fresh cigar burn on his chest.
He winced as the whiskey splashed against his skin, while the crowd that encircled him Sunday in sun-splashed Jackson Square cheered. Then, like a bear, he tossed back his head and unleashed a barbaric roar.
The ear-piercing yawp boomed across the French Quarter. It was loud, domineering, unrepentant, primal and sensual. As soon as I heard it, one thing was evident to me: This man had Brando in his bones. This was a victory cry.
The 28th annual Tennessee Williams Festival came to a close Sunday with what has become its signature event, the Stella and Stanley Shouting Contest. About 25 aspiring Stanley and Stella Kowalskis gathered in Jackson Square to put their own spin on Marlon Brando’s famous howl in the film version of Williams’ play “A Streetcar Named Desire.”
I was one of them.
According to Peggy Scott Laborde, who founded the festival, the idea for the contest began in the mid-1990s as a way to attract media coverage.
“It was very special, but at the end of the weekend, there wouldn’t be much media about it,” she said of the festival.“It wasn’t visual enough.”
Laborde wanted to add something with flair that would appeal to anyone, even if they didn’t have much literary knowledge.
Thus, the Stella-yelling tradition was born.
Sign-up on Sunday was swift, with the event limited to 25 people. After receiving my number, I sized up the competition.
“My lady friend said something about ripping my shirt off,” said Sonny Cunningham, 40, who was entering the contest for the first time.
“Why enter?” I asked.
“I’m a New Orleanian,” he shrugged. “It should be done.”
Brian Buckles, 52, said he won the event a few years back.
“I drove down my Harley and was getting some bloody marys at Muriel’s when one of my friends dared me to do it,” he said. “I told the waitress, ‘Just wait, I’m going to come back with the trophy.’ ”
An hour and a half later, he did.
There were mostly men performing Sunday, many packed into tight-fitting T-shirts that would be sliced in half, torn asunder or ripped to shreds when the moment arrived.
But two women did enter. One, Cheria Scaffidi, a 29-year-old with fire-engine-red hair, participated along with her boyfriend, Marc Trembley.
“I just took a shot of tequila,” she said, settling her nerves moments before the contest began. She then spent a few minutes watching YouTube performances of past winners.
I was not fresh to the Stella fray, having participated in 2011. The results then had been less than spectacular, my voice cracking like a pimply-faced teenager’s on my final yell.
Earlier in the day, I had tried to warm up with a few practice runs. But where does one scream “Stella” at top volume without disturbing the peace?
I opted for my red Saturn, which I considered a safe space. While circling Audubon Park, I pulled at my hair, pounded my fists against my chest, tore at my T-shirt — playing the part of someone in a state of psychosexual distress so desperate that the only option was total surrender to the most basic response of any jilted lover: pleading and screaming.
I received a number of strange looks from fellow motorists. I also realized this ritual was not something you could practice.
“It’s all about being in the moment,” said Mark Lee Smith, who lives in the French Quarter and had black chest hair crawling out of his cut-up T-shirt.
He then lectured me on the facts of the Napoleonic Code in perfect Kowalski jive.
“It’s all about the lust,” shouted another man. “You got to get primal with it!” he barked.
As each contestant screamed, my number grew closer to being called.
Finally, I was up. Onstage, all I could hear was the eerie silence of hundreds of people waiting for me to perform.
There was a lightning-fast twinge of nerves, but then something wild and unruly arose within me and I began to caw mightily, eventually dropping to my knees.
With Stella clad in a slim-fitting blue dress and swigging a cocktail on a Pontalba Apartments balcony above me, I unloaded my most guttural, passionate, love-stricken yelp.
It was, sadly, not enough for the victory, but it did net me fifth place, and the realization that nothing in life feels as good as being momentarily terrified and then bull-rushing through that fear to the other side.
Cusimano, a 26-year-old graduate of Loyola Law School and a 610 Stomper, was the victor, which was hardly a surprise. The Metairie resident had, in successive rounds, burned himself with a lit cigar and then doused his wound with booze, all in a fit of passion.
“I started seeing the competition and said to myself, ‘If you’re gonna go, you got to go!’ ” he said afterward, brushing away tears that appeared genuine.
He then hoisted his trophy high.
“This may be the best thing that ever happened in my life,” he exclaimed.
Oddly, I felt the same way.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Boswell Sisters revived in New Orleans

By Robin Miller, The New Orleans Advocate
Chica Boswell Jones charged her daughter, Kyla Titus, with one task.
“Bring the sisters home,” she said.
Jones was the daughter of Helvetia Boswell, better known as Vet in the lineup of the Boswell Sisters trio that included Martha and Connee.
The Andrews Sisters’ Maxine Andrews once said they were the first to vocally harmonize jazz.
And speaking of the Andrews Sisters, they were only Boswell emulators.
The Boswell Sisters were the first of the close harmony trios, and their sound came from New Orleans.
And now with The Historic New Orleans Collection’s exhibit, “Shout, Sister, Shout! The Boswell Sisters of New Orleans,” they’ve returned home. The show runs through Oct. 26 in the collection’s main gallery at 533 Royal St.
“I did as my mother asked,” Titus says. “I brought the sisters home.”
The exhibit celebrates the 100th anniversary of the Boswell family’s arrival in New Orleans.
They lived on Camp Street Uptown and were classically trained in music by cellist Otto Finck, an orchestra member at the French Opera House that once stood on Bourbon Street.
“They were exposed to all of New Orleans’ music,” Titus says. “Their mother even brought them to the Lyric Theatre to listen to African-American musicians.”
The sisters’ musical style eventually morphed from classical to jazz, and they started traveling the vaudeville circuit. Records and movie appearances would come later.
“And they did it in close harmony,” Titus says.
Close harmony is an arrangement of the notes of chords within a narrow range. The notes are usually within the same octave.
“That was difficult to do,” Titus continues “There was no technological equipment to enhance their voices like they have today. They did it themselves, and it was during the 1920s and ’30s. Their harmony made people feel good during the Great Depression, one of the worst times in our country’s history.”
Titus has proof of this. She’s writing a book about her grandmother and aunts, and she’s received letters from Boswell admirers worldwide.
“A man from Australia sent a letter about how the Boswell Sisters’ music gave him hope during the Great Depression,” Titus says. “That really says a lot.”
Titus will attend the exhibit’s opening reception on Tuesday, March 25. She’ll return for the collection’s 15th annual Bill Russell Lecture on Thursday, April 10, which also will feature a performance by the close harmony trio, the Pfister Sisters
“The show includes photography, memorabilia, programs and musical instruments that they played,” says Mark Cave, senior curator and oral historian. “We even have an old radio that belonged to the family, a steamer trunk the sisters used on tour and Connee Boswell’s wheelchair.”
The Boswell Museum in East Springfield, N.Y., donated its artifacts to The Historic New Orleans Collection after Chica Boswell’s death in 2010. She was the museum’s founder. Titus and museum board members then brought the sisters home.
“I’ve been working with Mark Cave for the past year on this exhibit,” Titus says. “We call this the Year of the Boswell Sisters’ Revival. There are three major things happening this year, beginning with the exhibit, then my book and the Joshua Tree’s public television documentary ‘The Boswell Sisters: Close Harmony’ in December.”
Martha was the oldest sister, born in 1905. Connee was born in 1907, and Vet in 1911. Their family lived in different locations in the country before their father landed a job at the Fleischmann’s yeast plant in New Orleans.
The sisters began making appearances at the Saenger, Orpheum and Palace theaters in New Orleans while in their teens and eventually struck out on a national vaudeville tour.
“This was a tour that usually didn’t include women,” Titus says. “I remember Connee saying, ‘What did they think we looked like? Ducks?’ They were always joking, and they loved to laugh. I called my grandmother Nana, and I once asked her, ‘Nana, why are you always laughing?” She quoted Abraham Lincoln, ‘If I don’t laugh, I’ll cry.’ ”
Titus never met her Aunt Martha, who died before Titus was born. But she knew her Aunt Connee well, and she was close to her grandmother.
“My mother and father divorced, so my mother and grandmother were the two closest people in my life,” she says. “We lived in Peekskill, N.Y., and my Aunt Connee had an apartment in Manhattan. We visited her often.”
Connee Boswell also had a solo career that was as successful as the close harmony with her sisters. But Connee had a drawback. Remember the wheelchair that’s going to be on display at the exhibition? Connee couldn’t walk.
“Some people speculate that she had polio,” Cave says. “But the family’s story is that she suffered a go-cart injury when she was a child.”
“The Boswell Sisters had small parts in movies, but never anything major,” Titus adds. “Connee was in a wheelchair, and a lot of directors didn’t know what to do with that.”
But that didn’t stop Connee Boswell’s influence as a singer. Ella Fitzgerald started out emulating her style, as did Bing Crosby. Frank Sinatra also credited Connee Boswell’s influence on fellow singers, and decades later, the Judds also would acknowledge her musical influence on their act.
“Her style wasn’t just about women soloists,” Titus says. “Men looked to her, too.”
Titus has so many other stories to tell, such as the time the sisters joined New Orleans trumpeters Louis and Leon Prima on a hayride tour through Louisiana after the 1927 flood. All proceeds from their tour stops benefitted flood victims.
There’s also the story of how Connee wanted to entertain troops with the USO overseas during World War II but wasn’t allowed because she was in a wheelchair.
“So, she went to hospitals and encouraged soldiers there,” Titus says.
This was after the trio disbanded in 1936. Titus speculates the cultural climate of the time contributed to the break-up.
“Women were still expected to abandon their careers when they got married,” she says. “They were raised as proper young ladies, but they were way ahead of their time. My grandmother kept her marriage secret for a year, and my aunt Martha had been married, had a child and divorced when she began in the act.”
Now the sisters are together again at home in The Historic New Orleans Collection.