Other visitors could be forgiven for wondering if they were seeing double: Both women, photographed performing as the Pfister Sisters, looked down from the wall, too, blown up larger than life, next to similar large-scale images of cellist Helen Gillet, singer Meschiya Lake and pianist Sweet Emma Barrett.
"Women of Note" is among the first exhibits focusing solely on the role of female performers and significant boosters in the development of jazz in New Orleans; it’s organized by David Kunian, the first music curator hired by the state museum in more than 10 years.
When Kunian came on board in 2016, the idea was on his list. With the urging of NOLA 4 Women, a group that advocates for programming related to the history of women in the city, it became a reality.
Occupying two rooms of gallery space, "Women of Note" is a compact presentation. Its small footprint is due in part to a relative lack of artifacts in the museum’s collection related to female performers — which, in part, speaks to how women’s contributions were (or really, weren’t) valued by keepers of the historical record.
Many of those artists, particularly from the early days, were singers, like the Boswell Sisters, Mahalia Jackson, Lizzie Miles and Tami Lynn, or pianists, like Billie Pierce, Sweet Emma, Jeanette Kimball and Nellie Lutcher.
Reading the exhibit’s text panels, you can’t help but mourn the lack of forethought that consigned the horn of Antonia Gonzales, a madam who played cornet in her own Storyville parlor, to the dustbin of the 20th century. Dr. Karen Leathem, a museum historian who worked on the exhibit, still hopes that Sweet Emma Barrett’s signature hat or the garters strung with bells that she wore for percussion are out there somewhere.
“How is it that no one saved Sweet Emma’s beanie and her bells?” she said. “I’ve been thinking about it since we did the Preservation Hall (50th anniversary, in 2011) exhibit. I keep thinking they’ll turn up.”
“We had a lot of photos and some records,” Kunian said, “but in terms of actual instruments, we barely have any — and the ones we do have aren’t necessarily jazz-related. So I had to get out there.”
A longtime WWOZ DJ and contributor to Offbeat magazine, Kunian started knocking on doors in the local music scene. And the musicians delivered. The exhibit features one of Helen Gillet’s cellos, a snare drum belonging to the Pinettes Brass Band’s Christie Jourdain and a trombone from the New Orleans Helsinki Connection’s Katia Toivola.
The result of including so many contemporary artifacts alongside the extensive photo, text and audio representation of earlier artists is that the exhibit gains a sense of cross-generational conversation. Kunian is presenting a living art form, connecting history to what’s going on in New Orleans music right now.
The lyrics to Helen Gillet’s song “Slow Drag Pavageau,” for example, which hang in the exhibit, were inspired by Gillet’s trip to the museum’s vault, where she saw a bass once played by the late Preservation Hall bass player and dancer Alcide "Slow Drag" Pavageau, who was born in 1888.
The photos of Debbie Davis and Holley Bendtsen are just feet away from a glass-encased 78 by the Boswell Sisters, the 1930s vocal group to whom they pay tribute as the Pfisters.
It gives the exhibit freshness and vitality — and, in turn, it stamps newer musicians with the gravitas and respect of the museum, too, helping to ensure that their legacies, still in the making, won’t be lost to history.
“I want people to see Aurora Nealand’s soprano saxophone in the exhibit,” Kunian said, “and then say ‘Hey, I can go see her play two blocks away tonight.”
"Women of Note" is on view at the New Orleans Jazz Museum at the Old U.S. Mint (400 Esplanade Ave.) through August 2018. Exhibition hours are 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays.
'Women of Note'
WHEN: Through August 2018
WHERE: Old U.S. Mint, 400 Esplanade Ave.
INFO: (504) 568-6993