People in New Orleans form identity from all sorts of things – music, oysters, crawfish, parades, Creole cottages, the Saints, and for some reason, the city’s area code, 504,” reports Fred Lyon in one of the mini-essays that accompany 71 photographs by David G. Spielman in When Not Performing: New Orleans Musicians (Pelican).
After a brief recitation of culturally commercial use to which the area code is put in certain names, Lyon goes on: “There is also Darryl Young, known as Dancing Man 504.” The photograph on the page opposite has Young in running shoes, pants and a T-shirt traversed by a sash emblazoned “Dancing Man 504.” He stands on a sidewalk, hands behind his back, framed by a doorway with security bars. The dancing man of the outside world gazes placidly at the camera.
After playing sports at a 9th Ward high school, the agile Young, who looks to be late 20s, came back post-Katrina and “wanted to do something about the crime, to give kids an alternative,” as he tells Lyon. He found a vehicle in second-line dancing which he calls “structured chaos, an outlet to help people expel pent up energy … we have a responsibility to use our culture to help our kids.”
The short essay matches the picture as a life story condensed into five paragraphs. This was part of the calculated approach by Spielman, a veteran photographer who believes in “working quickly and simply,” as he showed in Katrinaville Chronicles, an autobiographical photo-essay on life on the ground during the 2005 storm and days thereafter.
Spielman has photographed many musicians over the years, some of them since departed. He explains in the preface: “I came to realize and understand how this musical mosaic is a continuous work in progress. These men and women were and are part of something bigger than themselves, their group or their song.”
In a recent presentation on his work, Spielman explained that he wanted to capture musicians away from the stages or parade, posing in environments of their choosing. The pictures in the book convey certain artists in a self-idealized pose. Many of them wanted to be pictured with the instruments, “an extension of their being, their soul mate and partner and not unlike what my camera is to me,” he writes.
That sense of being registers in James Andrew, wearing a short-sleeved shirt of floral design, seated on a building block in front of a wooden fence, left hand holding the trumpet upright on his thigh, the head slightly a-tilt and a facial expression full of gravitas – the face of a trumpeter who has played hundreds of funerals, many for youngsters gone too young.
The slice-of-bio approach hangs nicely opposite Deacon John holding a guitar and Tom McDermott leaning on the piano with a gleaming smile. I do wonder what Johnny Vidacovich had in mind with one hand flat on the drum skin, the opposite elbow propping the hand whose fingers reach up the cheek toward the etched forehead, conveying the intensity of Hamlet on whether to be. Is it that bad, John? Say it ain’t so!
The span of personalities captured in moments of their choosing gives When Not Performing quite a sparkle.
Singer Mia Borders, who graduated from Loyola in 2010 with a degree in English, now has two albums; the smile in her photograph speaks volumes.
Of a beaming Clarence “Frogman” Henry, Lyon writes: “At the time of this interview, Frogman had been married eight times and had 10 children, 17 grandchildren, and 15 great-grandchildren, explaining, ‘It’s really the only way I can keep track of everybody’s names.’”
Spielman captures an ageless Pete Fountain, looking dapper, a hand cupped to his ear, smiling at what he can or cannot hear.
John Boutté stands on his back porch with elephant ears waist-high, as if the man with the golden voice sprouted up from tropical flora.
“Hurricane Katrina convinced me to move to New Orleans,” writes Lyon of his role in the book. “In order to help preserve what was almost lost – its music, its legends – I needed to have my feet planted firmly on the city’s scarred and sacred ground. I found that whatever damage had been done on the surface, the roots of the city’s music were still deeply entrenched in the ground, destined to flourish as the city’s musicians helped bring their community back to life.”
That sense of a community restored glows in the photograph of Dave Bartholomew, seated in a suit and comfortable chair, a potted palm behind him in the Roosevelt lobby, the studio maestro and bandleader of the Fats Domino sound with a distinguished air, not like a man near 90, poised, no trace of the relentless travel of years gone by.