Just how many musicians could Steve Valenti crowd onto that little stage behind his bar?
Well, everyone in Oscar “Papa” Celestin’s band managed to squeeze in, playing their sets while bartenders grabbed bottles lining the edge of the stage.
Proof is in Charles F. Bennett’s 1949 photograph, one of 50 in the Capitol Park Museum’s exhibit, “Keeping Time: Extraordinary Images from Louisiana’s Musical Past,” which runs through May 31. The photos were chosen from the Louisiana State Museum’s vast music collection, representing not only a pictorial history of the state’s music personalities but also a glimpse at their surroundings.
Surroundings like Valenti’s Paddock Lounge on Bourbon Street, where Celestin played traditional New Orleans jazz shoehorned into the cramped space.
Bennett’s camera captures not only a scene but an era in New Orleans when jazz legends were swinging in small clubs scattered throughout the French Quarter.
Curator Karen Leathem searched the collection to discover musical photo treasures, many donated by the New Orleans Jazz Club.
Some feature little-known musicians; others are rare candid shots of musicians whose names will be forever etched in the evolution of jazz, Celestin among them. The trumpeter was born in Napoleonville and eventually became the leader of the house band at the Tuxedo Dance Hall on the edge of New Orleans’ Storyville.
He later formed the Original Tuxedo Orchestra, which once boasted Louis Armstrong among its members, and made several landmark recordings first for Okeh, then Columbia records in the 1920s.
Celestin fell on hard times during the Great Depression, but never quit performing, as seen in Bennett’s 1940 photo of the Paddock Lounge, where Celestin had a standing gig. The space may be tight, but Celestin and his band project their energy past the bar’s boundaries.
Another photo shows the beginning of a music family’s legacy. The three instrument-wielding kids at the bottom were probably an afterthought to the photographer’s intended subject, a sightseeing trolley car and its conductor.
How would the photographer have known the three boys — Abbie and George Brunies and their friend Emmett Rogers — would become some of the best-known jazzmen in the 1920s? Especially George Brunies, who not only was one of the original members of the New Orleans Rhythm Kings but also played in Eddie Condon’s orchestra.
And though jazz dominates this exhibition, the genres making up this musical gumbo are as diverse as Louisiana’s population. Zydeco, blues and Cajun music are represented through photos of Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, Wayne Toups, Canray Fontenot and Alphonse “Bois-see” Ardoin, who appear together in a photo taken in Lafayette.
Then there’s the 1974 image by late Louisiana photographer Michael P. Smith showing pop and R&B singer Lee Dorsey at his day job in a New Orleans junkyard. Dorsey’s collaborations with Allen Toussaint in Cosimo Matassa’s studio produced such timeless hits as “Ya Ya” and “Working in the Coal Mine.”
The photo provides a glimpse, a single snap of the shutter, into Dorsey’s life, capturing how musicians had to make a living even while they pursued their craft.
The photo also is a case where the photographer’s name is as renowned as the musician’s. Smith produced several books of his photos of New Orleans musicians.
Smith’s peers are also part of the show, including Louisiana painter Elemore Morgan Jr., who also was a respected photographer; and John B. Gasquet, the first photographer to document the death scene of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow in Bienville Parish.
Finally, interspersed throughout the exhibit are some of the instruments played by the pictured musicians. There’s jazzman Barney Bigard’s clarinet, bluesman Silas Hogan’s guitar and trombonist Kid Ory’s mute or muffle.
And remember George Brunies, the kid holding the horn in the trolley car photo? He later traded it for a trombone, which also is included in this show, where every piece tells the story of Louisiana’s music.