As a Lafayette teenager in the early 1970s, visual artist Francis X. Pavy fell under the spell of pioneering New Orleans funk band the Meters. While still in high school, he saw multiple performances, and Meters records were around the house.
Decades later, when commissioned to paint the Meters for the 2017 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival’s commemorative poster, Pavy channeled his high school fandom: He rendered the members of the Meters in their bell-bottomed, Afro-ed early ‘70s glory.
“I think of them as that era,” Pavy, 63, said recently. “That’s what I was trying to capture.”
As far as Meters guitarist Leo Nocentelli is concerned, Pavy succeeded. “In general, he captured how everybody looked in that era,” Nocentelli said. “Whatever era it is, it’s pretty cool. It works.”
The Meters evolved from keyboardist/vocalist Art Neville’s family band, the Neville Sounds, in the mid-1960s. Featuring Neville, Nocentelli, bassist George Porter Jr. and drummer Joseph “Zigaboo” Modeliste, they set up shop as the featured band at the Ivanhoe bar on Bourbon Street. Prolific producer Allen Toussaint soon enlisted them as the house band for his various recording projects.
A series of hits
The Meters released their debut single, the instrumental “Sophisticated Cissy,” in 1968. The following year, “Cissy Strut” went to No. 4 on the R&B charts. The band’s first three albums for Josie Records established the template for slinky, economical, mostly instrumental New Orleans funk. Later albums for Reprise/Warner Bros. Records featured vocals more prominently, especially after Cyril Neville joined the band full-time. Those albums yielded such New Orleans standards as “Hey Pocky A-way,” “Fire on the Bayou,” “They All Ask’d For You,” “People Say” and “Africa,” many of which later became staples of the Neville Brothers.
The Meters’ long history with Jazz Fest reaches back to the very first one, staged in the spring of 1970 in what is now Armstrong Park and the Municipal Auditorium. Nocentelli recalls a conversation in which Quint Davis, the festival’s longtime producer, described what the event was intended to be.
“That’s how far I go back with Jazz Fest,” Nocentelli said. “It wasn’t even in its infancy. It was an embryo.”
By the late 1970s, the Meters had splintered. There would be occasional reunions alongside such off-shoots such as the Funky Meters and the Meter Men. The original quartet returns to the Fair Grounds once again this year to close the Gentilly Stage on the festival’s final Sunday, May 7.
Pavy plans to be there: “I still like music, and I like to have fun, and I like culture and art.”
Inspired by music
Music inspires much of his creativity. “I’ve always painted musicians. I always seem to come back to that and rediscover it and renew it and paint it in a new light. You are a different person five years later.”
Pavy is on a 10-year rotation as a Jazz Fest poster artist. He rendered the Neville Brothers in 1997, followed by Jerry Lee Lewis in 2007, and now the Meters in 2017.
He was eager to take a crack at the Meters, as much for their cultural contributions as his own fondness for them. “If you know and study funk music, you have to know the Meters. I respect and admire them for what they’ve done for the culture. I want to honor them for their art.”
To prepare, he drew each member of the band multiple times, using an array of photographs to familiarize himself with their facial features and structure. “Once you get that down, you can build on that.”
He scanned his drawings into his iPad, altered them electronically with a stylus, printed them out, then repeated the process.
He painted the final version of the entire band with oil paint. Neville wears the spangled denim jacket that defined his signature look in the ‘70s. Pavy put bassist George Porter Jr. in a T-shirt. “He was very athletic and muscular,” Pavy said of the young Porter.
Modeliste sports a vest based on one he wore in a promotional photo for an old Meters album. “I used that vest, which I thought was really cool,” Pavy said. “That goes with the early ‘70s thing.”
Only Porter offered feedback on his depiction. “I took his considerations to heart,” Pavy said. “I did make an adjustment, and it worked better. I didn’t have the right proportion for his head.”
At one point, Pavy toyed with using a streetcar as the backdrop, but “it never jelled.” Instead, he was inspired by a 1920s poster advertising a Prussian orchestra. The orchestra’s director was depicted as a small character dramatically dwarfed by tall curtains.
For the Jazz Fest poster, Pavy painted velvet curtains decorated with outlines of a New Orleans street scene. The curtains evaporate into the night sky.
A signing bonus
His work wasn’t finished when the painting was. He and the four members of the Meters signed 800 special-edition prints of the poster. Pavy also autographed another 1,600 “artist signed” prints, a process that required a six-hour team effort: One staffer sharpened pencils as another “pulled” the posters one after another, so Pavy could sign them assembly-line style.
During his first marathon Jazz Fest poster signing session in 1997, he “wasn’t hip to what that would do to your fingers. My fingers were numb for two weeks.”
He has since learned tricks of the trade. He uses a sticky “pencil protector” to ease the stress of the repetitive motion on his fingers. “I did get a little numbness this year,” he said, “but it only lasted an hour.”
Nocentelli didn’t mind the signing session. He’s just thrilled to finally find himself on a Jazz Fest poster 48 years after the Meters’ first performance at the festival.
He’s also happy that, when compared with the poster image of his younger self, “I still have just as much hair. I’d rather see that than Leo wearing a hat.”
The official 2017 Jazz Fest poster is available from Art4Now in an edition of 8,500 numbered prints, for $69 apiece; 1,600 artist-signed and numbered prints for $239; 450 artist- and musician-signed "remarqued" copies for $595; and 300 artist over-painted copies signed by the musicians for $895.