The figure in the photo wears a crisp white blouse tucked into a full skirt, her hair swept into an elegant updo. Her eyes aren’t looking at the camera but down at the electric guitar slung across her shoulders, as if she’s fingering a particularly challenging riff.
The picture was snapped at the San Jacinto Hall in New Orleans in 1953, at the Jolly Bunch Social Aid and Pleasure Club’s summer ball. “And that’s all we know,” Alaina Hebert said.
The photo of the mystery rocker is one of several that Hebert, associate curator for graphics at Tulane’s Hogan Jazz Archive, has enlarged for the upcoming exhibit “Building a Tradition: The Multifaceted Legacy of Women in New Orleans Music,” which opens Tuesday (Oct. 10). The exhibit will include materials drawn from the archive’s large collection, from sheet music composed by women in the pre-jazz era to photos and other materials related to well-known performers from more recent times.
There's a late 19th-century piece of music by a Mrs. Estelle Hayden, who may well have included her marital status in the credit as a pre-emptive defense of her reputation at a time when women taking the piano further than a ladylike hobby could raise eyebrows. More recent materials reflect the contributions of Blue Lu Barker, Billie Pierce and Sweet Emma Barrett and less widely celebrated key figures like the musician Mamie Desdunes, an acknowledged strong influence on Jelly Roll Morton.
Like the Old U.S. Mint’s “Women of Note” exhibition on women in early New Orleans jazz, the exhibit at Tulane was conceived in partnership with the advocacy and education group NOLA 4 Women, which works with local cultural institutions to explore the role of women in New Orleans history.
“Building a Tradition” widens its frame to showcase architects of New Orleans music who did their essential work offstage. There’s Allison Miner, whose career included managing Professor Longhair and helping to produce the first versions of Jazz Fest. She's an especially appropriate inclusion since Miner, who died in 1995, began her career at the Hogan Jazz Archive.
There’s Barbara Reid, the colorful co-founder of the earliest iteration of Preservation Hall before the Jaffe family took stewardship in 1961. There are Myra Menville and Helen Arlt, core members of the New Orleans Jazz Club, which, beginning just after World War II, likely collected the largest hoard that exists of instruments and other artifacts related to the birth of jazz.
There are documenters, preservationists, archivists, promoters, managers — all workers who made sure the show went on and that afterward, it was remembered.
Hebert’s holistic look at the labor required to build and sustain a musical community also includes the female family members who raised and supported musicians.
Many male musicians of the 20th century came from families that revolved around women, she explained.
“Not necessarily single mothers, but strong female heads of household," Hebert said. "(Louis) Armstrong, for example, was raised partly by his mother, mostly by his grandmother.”
Morton, Danny Barker and Creole clarinetist Barney Bigard, who played with King Oliver and Duke Ellington, were brought up in women-led homes.
Female survivors of early male jazz musicians were key to the work of the Hogan Archive when it was founded in 1958, providing essential oral histories, Hebert said.
A result of Hebert’s breadth of focus is a feeling of warmth and in a way, humanity, that’s less present when music history documents musicians only when they're at work.
Offstage, the smiles are less guarded, the postures easier — and there are hints at the fullness of their stories.
In one photo, Armstrong poses with his mother and sister. In another, George Lewis, the clarinetist born in 1900, sits on a narrow bed with his mother, Alice Zeno — the French-speaking daughter of enslaved people who raised her son on wages earned as a domestic servant in the home of author Grace King.
“We want to show a full view of people’s lives,” Hebert said.
“Building a Tradition: The Multifaceted Legacy of Women in New Orleans Music” opens Tuesday, Oct. 10, in the second-floor gallery of Joseph Merrick Jones Hall on the Tulane University campus.