Tony Green & Jazz Fest

When painter/musician Tony Green took a borrowed Hasselblad and an artist's eye to Jazzfest, it was a propitious time to shoot.

The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival was still a small affair in 1975, three days on the last weekend in April. Access was easy (look at Tony peering into Professor Longhair's tent!). Less obviously, Tony knew that the people he was shooting were important figures, a fact that was lost on most locals at the time.

New Orleans was originally known to American music lovers for the early glory days of traditional jazz in the first decades of the 20th century. But equally important in our history is the explosion of New Orleans Rhythm & Blues which began in 1949 when both Fats Domino and Professor Longhair began recording. This led the way to funk and New Orleans bounce and the seductive New Orleans "brand" that we have today. In 1975, most of the legends of New Orleans R&B were still around, and many showed up for this event.

Arguably the most influential post-WW2 Nola musician was Professor Longhair, born Henry Roeland Byrd. At this time “Fess” was enjoying a career revival that would end with his passing in 1980. An autodidact who mixed piano blues, boogie-woogie, Afro-Cuban rhythm and a wild, caterwauling voice into a completely original brew, he made his mark on hundreds of later musicians: Allen Toussaint, Dr. John, the Meters and the Neville Brothers among them.

Clifton Chenier is the father of modern zydeco. He took it from the Louisiana countryside and spread his powerful dance rhythms (with some help from Queen Ida) to the nation and the world. Zydeco, and its country cousin, Cajun music, are worldwide phenomena because of Chenier and others of his generation like Rockin' Dopsie.

A much harder fellow to pigeonhole is James Booker. In short, he invented a new way to play piano. The long take: he mixed rag, gospel, r&b, jazz and boogie-woogie with astounding technique and scorching soulfulness. The Piano Prince was known as much for his crazy behavior as his music, but make no mistake: he is one of the great geniuses of New Orleans music. A history of the festival says Booker made his debut at the fest in 1975, though, in a puzzle worthy of the man, also lists him on the 1974 schedule.

Look who else makes an appearance. The guitarist Gatemouth Brown cut fantastic records like "Okey Dokey Stomp" with a big band in the 1940s and kept on the road into the 21st century. Roosevelt Sykes, the beloved pianist/composer who sang his witty, louche blues for 60 years. The Emperor of the Universe, Ernie K-Doe. Saxophonist Earl Turbinton, one of the greatest of New Orleans' modern jazz players.

Jazzfest is now a sprawling, corporate affair, drawing hundreds of thousands. To be sure, It still has its wonderful moments; but New Orleans artists, once the headliners promoting the show, take second place now to rock and pop stars. We don't have a time machine to revisit these simpler days, when musical giants who only could have come from New Orleans walked among us. Such a fact makes this collection of Tony's photos a glorious substitute.

Tom McDermott
New Orleans, 2019