The photographs collected in Lee Friedlander’s Playing for the Benefit of the Band: New Orleans Music Culture, many of which are currently on display at the Yale University Art Gallery, were taken between the years 1958 and 1982, though I suspect I’m not the only resident of New Orleans who will do a double take at the datelines beneath the pictures. In the images of Mardi Gras the parade routes appear the same as they are today, the Creole cottages are the same, the floats are the same. The members of Zulu wore the same grass skirts, blackface makeup, and afro wigs in 1982 as they do today. The Mardi Gras Indian costumes haven’t changed either. Some of the brass bands Friedlander photographed played at the most recent JazzFest, just a couple of weeks ago (albeit with different members). If you could hear the music, it would sound the same too.
But Friedlander’s most indelible images are his portraits of musicians. Friedlander arrived in New Orleans at a high point in the jazz revivalist movement, when fans of jazz as it was originally played in New Orleans in the first two decades of the twentieth century (before the perceived corruptions of swing and bebop) descended on the city with tape recorders and notepads and cameras, hoping to catch some of the old magic and document it for posterity. Many of the musicians who pioneered the form as teenagers were still alive, and still living in New Orleans, when Friedlander first visited in 1957. While others recorded oral histories and took down reminiscences of Buddy Bolden, Friedlander photographed musicians like De De and Billie Pierce, Peter Bocage, and Ernest “Punch” Miller—musicians who, having languished in poverty and obscurity for decades, were enjoying in their dotage a belated, if rousing second act.
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