It is a widely-held belief that sequels are rarely as good as the original, fewer still are even better (maybe The Godfather II or The Empire Strikes Back), and most are much worse (see Fletch Lives or Speed 2: Cruise Control for details).
In 2017 I gathered together more than 40 New Orleans drummers and percussionists for what I called The Different Drummer Project. The main concept was to take a group photo that would be a tribute to Art Kane‘s historic image “A Great Day in Harlem”. Proceeds from the sale of the photo would be donated to The Roots of Music, a non-profit educational and music mentoring organization aiding underserved community children in New Orleans. This project was the most rewarding shoot of my career, and I was determined to tempt the fates and create a sequel as special as the original.
Late in 2017, I began to dream up the concept of Part Two. I wanted a group that was as talented, dynamic, and fun to work with as the drummers had been. When it came time to arrange my trip to the Big Easy to shoot the 2018 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, part of my planning would need to be centered around the benefit project, which meant answering the question, “Which instrument will get its chance in 2018?” The answer would come quickly.
The electric guitar has become an iconic object. Jimi Hendrix made love to his and set it aflame. Pete Townshend smashed his. Eddie Van Halen tickled the neck of his. Keith Richards only used five strings on his, while Don Felder used twelve. And Jimmy Page took a violin bow to his Les Paul keeping us all “Dazed and Confused.” Staging the shoot in one of the music capitals of the world would offer access to literally dozens of the most talented players alive thus 2018 would be the year of the guitars–The Six String Slingers.
I began in much the same way I did with the Different Drummers project. I started my wish-list with the guitarists from the NOLA scene with whom I am closest: Eric Lindell, Anders Osborne, Tab Benoit, Dave Malone & Billy Iuso. I knew that I wanted them all in the final image and I knew that I could count on them to come up with more names. Given the unfortunate lack of female drummers in last year’s photo, this year I was determined to include some badass female guitarists. Mia Borders and Samantha Fish immediately came to mind.
Eric, Anders and Dave were immediately on board. Billy, unfortunately, was already booked to play a mid-week set at NOLA Crawfish Festival. Anders gave me a few leads. Dave got his brother Tommy Malone of subdudes and made sure his “partner in crime” from The Radiators, Camile Baudoin, was on board.
Things were starting to come together. I had gotten my friends–now I wanted some of my heroes (I’m sort of a starry-eyed kid in that way–getting Zigaboo Modeliste to show up for my Drummer shoot the year before was a huge thrill).
At the top on my wish-list was Leo Nocentelli, the guitarist in the seminal Funk band, The Meters. Leo and Meters band-mates George Porter Jr., Art Neville, and Zig were essentially responsible for my obsession with New Orleans music, dating back to my college years at The University of Michigan. And two of the other “elders” of the NOLA music scene, Walter “Wolfman” Washington and Deacon John Moore, also topped my must-have list. Walter is one of the kindest, most soulful blues players around. And in a city full of characters, few are more colorful than the 77-year-old John Moore, who has played at every single Jazz Fest since its inception in 1970. I didn’t know how tough it was going to be to score Leo, Walter, and John, but I was up for the challenge. It turned out to be tricky in varying degrees.
The Wolfman ask was the least complicated. I know Walter’s manager Adam Shipley from his work with the Soul Rebels Brass Band. Adam was kind enough to connect me with Walter’s girlfriend, Michelle Bushey. They told me that as long as they could make it in time to their set later that day at Louisiana Music Factory to premiere his new album “My Future Is My Past”, Walter would be there.
It was more challenging getting Leo. Reaching him meant getting in contact with his wife and personal gatekeeper, Pesucky. I knew Leo a bit but I can’t say that we are close friends. After receiving no reply to several shoot-related emails to Pesucky, I started to get nervous. One night, out of the blue, my cell phone rang. It was Leo. He wanted to know what the project was all about. I explained the concept of the project and its charitable mission, and that, of course, I would also let everyone involved use the images themselves. Leo told me that he considered me to be one of the “baddest photographers out there” and that is why he reached out. That blew me away! I told him that he was one of the “baddest” guitar players ever and that I was very honored for him to think of me like that. He also said that he had been around long enough to know when someone was being a “straight shooter” and that he believed that this was a project from my heart to do something positive for his community. Leo was on board!
Getting John Moore was a little trickier and somewhat more interesting. Dave Malone and others suggested calling the New Orleans Musicians Union, of which John, it turns out, is the President. Several calls and messages got me nowhere at first, but my persistence ultimately got him on the phone. I didn’t think he knew me, so I introduced myself, explained the project and waited to hear what he had to say. After what seemed like a very long pause…he asked if there “would be any whiskey and fried chicken” and then he started laughing. I laughed right along with him, but explained that since this was an event to raise money for a children’s program, and that Roots’ facility was, in fact, one of the city’s high schools they had been given to use post-Katrina, alcohol seemed like a bad idea, but fried chicken definitely didn’t seem out of the question. Deacon John was in!
Many times, dealing with musicians means dealing with managers. From the start, the one manager that I knew I needed on my side was Rueben Williams, Tab Benoit’s best friend and manager. He also manages Samantha Fish, Jonathon “Boogie” Long and Eric Johanson. As they say in local parlance, “we been knowing each other a while.” Rueben came through for me big time.
Three others that were extremely helpful were Zack Feinberg of The Revivalists, Paul Sanchez, and Spencer Bohren. Zack’s girlfriend Anne Messner was the Executive Director for The Roots of Music. Zack already knew all about the project and he was able to connect me with a group of younger players that I didn’t really know much about. Paul Sanchez is really known more as a singer-songwriter than a guitar player. But if you’ve ever seen Paul live, you know his Taylor acoustic guitar itself is almost legendary. Paul graciously came up with more names and made those connections for me. Spencer is another wonderful player from around town. I originally met him through another friend, the great Texas Blues player Anson Funderburgh. Like Paul, Spencer came up with lots of players. I thank all of them again for their help!
One thing I knew I wanted from a city known for its gumbo of musical influences was a large variety of different-style players. And while so far that was happening nicely, I did not have any connections to Jazz players, or to several of the city’s old guard Blues players. And I needed to get to those people.
On March 26th, I sent an email to approximately 25 guitar players and managers, many in the Jazz and Blues scene, whose names had been suggested to me. The subject line was: “Six String Slingers: A Project to Benefit The Roots of Music.” It began as follows:
Who: All the Guitar players associated with New Orleans and the “Jazz Fest scene”
What: An epic photo to help benefit The Roots of Music
Where: 1331 Kerlerec Street (The former McDonogh 35 High School in the Treme)
When: Tuesday, May 1st at 3pm (this should take less than an hour if everyone can get there on time)
Why: To honor those of you who make the world dance with your picking, scratching and fingering
That email went on to explain the project, and to let them know that they had each been recommended by other NOLA musicians and/or managers and that I would be honored to have them participate.
The final group came together fairly easily, as there was a bit of a buzz after the prior year’s gathering. I felt good about doing this for the kids and also for all these players. And I think for many of them it felt nice to be asked, to be included. In fact, however, the real irony was that actually, it was I who was so flattered that they would give me “less than an hour if everyone can get there on time” in the middle of the busiest week of the year in New Orleans for any working musician!
The days between the responses to my email and Jazzfest quickly dwindled until it was, finally, shoot-day. After an early morning appointment with my local chiropractor, Michael Lechleiter, to get “reset” after the first long weekend, it was off to Popeye’s. After all, I had “negotiated” with the Union for some fried chicken, and I had to deliver on my end of the bargain! I walked in and asked if I could place a large order. The counter-woman politely pointed out their combo specials. I told her I needed to feed around 40 adults and asked for 80 pieces. She asked for her manager. Approximately 30 minutes later, I was headed back to a friend’s home where I had been staying to gear up for the shoot, while the fried chicken stayed warm in his oven. I still owe him an apology for making his lovely home smell like a fast food joint – I think it might still smell today! But by 1:30pm I was on my way down the road to get ready.
I really wasn’t sure exactly how many players would show up. I hoped for around 40 like the year before, and my communications had led me to believe this number was realistic. (Ian Neville had actually even shown up a day early by mistake, and after a brief text-clarification, he promised to return the next day.) As I walked into the school courtyard there were already a few guys there. Alvin Youngblood Hart was waiting. So were Paul Sanchez and “West Bank” Mike Doussan. Then John Fohl, one of the City’s great under-the-radar players, showed up. Still a full hour before “call time”, I started shooting some portraits of people as they arrived. As I had suggested in my email, almost all arrived with a guitar, and just about everyone was eager to have their own mini-portrait session with me.
What quickly became apparent, though, was that I was not going to have the opportunity to capture the more candid moments of interaction between everyone before the group photo if I concentrated only on these portraits, so I did my best to keep peeking over my shoulder to try to capture a few of the more intimate, unguarded moments. One of my favorites caught three of the elders from the city’s Blues scene, Mem Shannon, “Little” Freddie King & “Wolfman”, sitting together catching up. Boy, would I have loved to hear THAT conversation!
Some of the people were more than willing to really ham it up and help me create some fun portraits. A few of my favorites: “Wolfman” pretending to sink his teeth into Leo, and Leo then choking him in return; and Deacon John taking a seat, opening up his guitar case like he was busking, and Tommy Malone and Paul Sanchez immediately coming over to throw money in it. Of course, the biggest comedian on the “set” was Dave Malone. And the images I made of the Malone Brothers and of Dave & Camile of The Radiators were not only humorous but also had a real soul to them. One pair is brothers and the other pair is “brothers from another mother” whose relationship goes back decades. Also, as I mentioned earlier, Reuben had come through with all four of his players, and I made some wonderful images of Tab, Samantha, “Boogie”, and Eric Johanson joking around.
I also got a few more of the fun combinations. Old friends Anders & Brian Stoltz of Funky Meters fame; Brian, June Yamagishi and Ian Neville; Cranston Clements with Jamie Lynn Vessels & the great Jimmy Robinson; and a few of the “young guns”–Peter Murano of Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue, Zack Feinberg, and Paul Provosty.
With Anders, June & Seizo Shibayamain, I had foreign-born artists who have made New Orleans their homes. Jazz players were covered by Jimmy, who was joined by Jonathan Freilich, John Rankin, and Carl LeBlanc, who showed up on his bike with no guitar (so that’s how we made his portrait). And Jamie Lynn Vessels, Samantha Fish, and Mia Borders added the much needed “girl power” to the gathering.
Everyone seemed to be having a lot of fun. However, I was now two hours into my “less than an hour” shoot! It was time to gather the troops and make the group portrait.
They say you should sacrifice for your art, and that most great art comes out of some sort of pain (although I don’t think anyone actually recommended that Van Gogh cut off his ear). But when I quickly jumped back into doing more individual shots after the group portrait, I became literally painfully aware how far in over my head I had gotten. My recently adjusted back now felt worse than it did before going to the chiropractor that morning, and my knees were killing me. In the middle of shooting Anders, he asked me if I was alright. I said, “of course.” He then motioned to my knees. I looked down to see a piece of skin approximately the size of a half dollar hanging off my left knee, looking like sepsis was about to set in. Without thinking, I tore the skin off and threw it to the side and continued shooting. Anders looked like he might throw up. But onward we went! I had barely done portraits of half the players before the group photo, and I couldn’t tell people no.
I was upset that Eric ended up missing the shoot after all our years of friendship and his assistance coming up with names of players. He had an equipment issue to handle before his show that night with Dragon Smoke. But as they say, “shit happens.” I do feel bad that a few Six-Stringers had to leave before I got to shoot them individually–in particular, I never got an individual portrait of Spencer Bohren, who is now fighting Stage IV prostate cancer (if you feel so inclined, there is a GoFundMe to help with his bills). And Alex McMurray came and went without me ever getting to thank him for taking the time out of his day. And the Head of the Union had to leave early, so Deacon John is not in the group photo. My intention was to shoot people in the order they arrived, but forty people, plus a few friends milling around, led to a bit of chaos. I am extremely grateful for everyone’s cooperation. Their patience genuinely overwhelmed me.
At 5:30pm on the nose, I made my last image of the day: New York City transplant and local WWOZ DJ, Marc Stone and Chip Wilson. Three and a half hours, 43 guitar players, 80 pieces of fried chicken, two very dirty and bloody knees, 3300 clicks on my three cameras (Nikon D4 and Fujifilm X-Pro2 & X-T2), and I was finally done. I packed my gear, thanked the staff of The Roots of Music, and I was off. I felt that amazing release of energy after finishing something so monumental. I was exhausted, but the day was still young in Jazz Fest terms.
Back at the house, I quickly previewed a few images. I was almost too scared to see what the group photo looked like. The prior year it had been such utter chaos that one or two guys were obscured. Getting a group of ten people to pose is hard enough. A group of forty-plus is nearly impossible. But with a little extra resolve and a slightly louder voice, I believe I actually got the group to listen and we set up a great portrait.
The Six String Slingers:
Slowly, over the rest of the year, I culled through all the images, paring down to just over 500. I showed them to my wife, Robyn, for a second opinion. Another set of eyes can be crucial when you are seeing so much of something that it becomes hard to see the differences. Finally, eight months after capturing them, I settled on 170 images of 43 guitar players related to the Crescent City. I had achieved the largely unachievable–a sequel as enjoyable as the original. And that can mean only one thing…
It’s time to start working on a project for the upcoming 50th anniversary of Jazz Fest. I’m knee-deep (yes, they heeled) in planning and while the subject is still under wraps, I can tell you one thing fo’ sho’, I’m planning on making it a funky good time!
There were too many great images from the day to include here. Please take a few minutes to check out the gallery on my site. Especially if you don’t see any individual portraits of your favorite players. All of the images from both The Different Drummer Project and Six String Slingers projects are available for sale through those hyperlinks. 50% of all profits go to The Roots of Music.