The Louisiana State Museum’s collection of music artifacts is an extraordinary hoard.
Rows of neat gray industrial shelves in the storage rooms at the Old U.S. Mint, on Esplanade Avenue, display a library of objects: There’s a bass drum from early jazz trombonist Kid Ory’s Creole Serenaders, a mouthpiece from Joe “King” Oliver’s cornet, a banner from the French Quarter hot spot Dixie’s Bar of Music and a banjo that belonged to “Creole” George Guesnon, a member of the original, 1961-formed version of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and Jelly Roll Morton’s onetime roommate.
A cluster of upright basses are stored leaning on stands at a slanted angle that gives them, with their wide bodies and skinny necks, the air of a lounging gang of buddies, just hanging out. The museum has Dave Bartholomew’s trumpet, a brick and a doorknob from Storyville’s Mahogany Hall, and the wrecked piano that was salvaged from Fats Domino’s Caffin Avenue home in the Lower Ninth Ward after floodwaters receded in 2005.
Even more instruments and musical items, like sheet music, magazine and newspaper clippings, rare records, piano rolls and wax cylinders, are stored at the museum’s other locations throughout the state.
What the state museum has not had, for 10 years and change, is a dedicated caretaker for these assets.
Don Marquis, the jazz scholar and Buddy Bolden biographer, inaugurated the position of music curator in 1978 and served until his retirement in the mid-’90s, when Steve Teeter took over the job. Teeter held the post until Hurricane Katrina, but after that, it remained empty — not an ideal situation for a city whose musical heritage is one of its top tourism draws, and which, despite that, has few brick-and-mortar destinations dedicated to music.
Museum historians mined the collection for some music exhibits during those years, including a tribute to Preservation Hall for the venue’s 50th anniversary and an exploration of Louisiana music’s “unsung heroes” in collaboration with the Ponderosa Stomp roots-music festival.
Finally, in February, the State Museum hired David Kunian, an award-winning radio documentarian and longtime late-night DJ on the community radio station WWOZ.
Under his stewardship, in 2017 the museum will launch the new, permanent New Orleans Jazz Museum, filling all 14,000 square feet of the Mint’s second floor.
Kunian spends his days among the instruments, and he’s not immune to their vague aura of magic.
“Half of me (believes) spiritual mumbo-jumbo is just spiritual mumbo-jumbo — it just happened to be the instrument that someone played, it’s not that somehow, something in George Lewis’ clarinet made him the player that he was,” he said.
“But something in the clarinet shaped the notes. If you want to break it down, he touched it and he put his lips on it and it actually, physically has his DNA on it. Music is vibrations, and vibrations change the things that they go through.”
David Kunian moved to New Orleans from Boston in 1992. He quickly became a fixture on the local music scene, writing for Offbeat and Gambit, emceeing concerts and moderating live interviews at events like Jazz Fest.
An omnivorous fan, he was as likely to blast post-midnight WWOZ listeners with two hours of Sun Ra as he was to emcee the alt-local music party Chaz Fest in a top hat.
With grant funding, he made feature-length radio documentaries on the Dew Drop Inn, James Booker and Earl King. In 2013, he finished a master’s degree in ethnomusicology at Tulane.
Much of the museum’s music collection comes from the collection of the storied New Orleans Jazz Club, founded in the middle of the twentieth century and housed in several locations around the French Quarter until Don Marquis organized it into a long-running display at the Mint.
The new Jazz Museum will display its canonical treasures, but with Kunian — the polar opposite of a “moldy fig,” a staunch traditional purist in the lingo of jazz fans — at the helm, it will also portray Louisiana music as vital, diverse and accessible.
“The job is part librarian, part researcher, part archivist,” he said, “figuring out what’s here and how to get it out to the public. For me, it’s also trying to expand beyond trad jazz to modern-day music, R&B, brass bands, Cajun and zydeco as much as we can.”
The last time Kunian saw avant-garde jazz bassist James Singleton at a late-night gig, he said, he gave him a directive.
“I said, this is my new job. So, don’t throw anything out.”