Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Photographer captures musical moments

Photo credit: Eliot Kamenitz
BY Eliot Kamenitz
“Moon, you’re up. Hebert next, then Sanchez!” barks bartender David Roe as he lines up the musical batting order at Buffa’s Bar backroom in New Orleans on open mike night.

It’s three songs and you’re out. Piano player and songstress Gardenia Moon drives through the rhythm and blues of Irma Thomas’ “Two Winters Long,” then follows with a smooth, self-authored lost love song called “At The Bar.”

Michael Hebert will strum and croon his way through original work, while Natasha Sanchez’s songs range from ditties about lizards to moody tunes about coming to peace with living in New Orleans in the early post-Katrina years.

It’s just another New Orleans Wednesday, which boasts everything from small, sticky-floored joints on Frenchmen Street with bands fronted by tip buckets to the refined environment of the National Park Services Jazz Park performance space in the Old U.S. Mint, where free concerts are laced with cultural history.

For high pay, low pay and sometimes no pay, musicians play with a free-flowing dedication to their craft. It’s a fertile field of jazz, roots, blues, folk, brass, big band, small band and the entire harmonic cross-pollenation found nowhere else.

Where else can a steel blues guitarist jam on a tune with someone else playing a bouzouki, backed by a country fiddle? People love to listen to music in New Orleans, because people here love to play it.

I learned this on a very long journey to get here. This is how it happened.

By her own admission, mom hated to cook and wasn’t good at it. In 1971, my choice was between New Orleans and a holiday meal of turkey a la sawdust.

So my friend Steve Davis and I drove from Gainesville, Fla., to the intrigue of the Crescent City ( it wasn’t called the Big Easy back then and I sort of gag when I hear it called that now). My mom got my dad to take her out to dinner. It was a holiday win-win for everyone.

I was 18 and loose in the Vieux Carre. It’s no surprise that I remember little about the trip. I do remember one thing. Music. Not a lot of it. Actually none of it but one specific instance. We were in an ice cream shop off Pirate’s Alley. Steve pulled out his harmonica.

What my mother was to cuisine, Steve was to melody. Nonetheless, as he hobbled through a tune, some guy at the next table pulled out his harp and joined in a jam.

This is what I learned: In New Orleans, music just happens.

This was reinforced in 1977 when I drove from Macon, Ga., to Baton Rouge to visit my friend Waddell Loflin. Robert’s Rules of Order were followed for our meeting. “Hello. How are you? Let’s go to New Orleans.”

It was on Bourbon Street in a bar called Crazy Shirley’s where I had my first religious experience with New Orleans music. The band was playing traditional and Dixieland jazz. Its joyous tempo exorcised any gloom my soul could harbor. And before their next tune the bandleader said, “Father Coco, you wanna play?”

At the next table, the Rev. Frank Coco, S.J., produced a small, worn box from which he took out and assembled a clarinet and joined the band. And on into Heaven I did rise.

I can’t play a lick of music, but I love it, and if everybody including the priest was playing, this is the place I had to be.

I made it to New Orleans in 1980, found work at a newspaper, and I’m still in awe.

Being a photojournalist, it was only natural I would start taking pictures of the musicians. As the years progressed, I turned it into a kind of hobby.

My photos of musicians are typically in black and white. I found the rainbow colors of stage lights or the bare-blub yellow glow of the dimmer venues a distraction: The simple tone and contrast you get from black and white draws the viewer to the musician and expresses his or her emotion, force and thought.

In this town, I will never run out of material.

I was in dba listening to the Cottonmouth Kings at a time when the city was still trying to stitch itself back together from Hurricane Katrina. A 20-something guy next to me at the bar struck up a conversation, which eventually led to him stating that he was going to find a way to move to New Orleans.

I asked him why, considering the state the city was in.

“I’m a musician,” he answered.

“If you’re going to play music, you’ve got to come to New Orleans.”

Eliot Kamenitz is a photographer for The New Orleans Advocate. He can be reached at
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