Every year in late April, I make my way down to New Orleans for Jazz Fest. To me, it is the best music festival in one of the very best cities. A place where one can spend all day and night eating the best food, listening to some of the greatest musicians and checking out wonderful art. However, all the fun aside, I am there for one purpose: to shoot live music. Leaving my wife and young daughter home in New York City for two weeks doesn’t make this trip a vacation. It’s work. And my goal is to come home with at least a handful of exceptional and hopefully unique images. The reality is, that’s much easier said than done. With so many photographers all shooting the same shows this can be a real struggle.
One day In early 2017, I was walking home and passed an advertisement in the window of a Crunch gym in New York City. This ad inspired me to create The Different Drummer Project, (which you can read about here); something that allowed me to do something a bit more creative than just capturing musicians playing live on stage or hanging around backstage. It also gave me the chance to give back to a city and its people that mean so much to me. By working in conjunction with The Roots of Music, a wonderful organization that works with children from New Orleans, I devised a plan to help raise some money and spread the word on their efforts.
The Different Drummer Project group photo (Tue 5/2/17)
After the success of that first year, I started to think about building an actual body of work beyond the live images that I’ve become known for. This led to my second project–Six String Slingers,( which you can read about here)–a group of diverse local New Orleans-based musician friends and guitar players. Two amazing historical gatherings of over 40 musicians each time. Could I keep this up?! I was certainly going to try. The question was what instrument would I focus on next?
Six String Slingers (Tue 5/1/18)
Ever since I was a very young kid in the early 1970s, I have been obsessed with music. In college, I started to explore the world of Blues and Funk/Soul/R&B. This, of course, led me down the Mississippi River from Chicago to New Orleans, and inevitably, to the music of The Meters. I feel lucky that in the late 80s I was able to see them when they started playing out live again. And I’m blessed that I became friendly with the legendary bass player and one of the creators of Funk, George Porter, Jr. It was George who made the decision for my third project easy. Just like the first year when Zigaboo Modeliste to joined the drummers, and last year when Leo Nocentelli joined the guitar players, I wanted another member of The Meters in this year’s shoot [Sadly, I’d like to note that I’d considered doing the keyboard players. But I knew that Art Neville and Dr. John were not in good health. And by late July, both had passed.]
The original Meters @ Howlin’ Wolf (Sat 5/5/12)
Having settled on bass players, I needed to start putting together a list. At the beginning of January, The Revivalists played the Beacon Theatre. After the show, I was talking with their bassist, George Gekas. He told me how much he enjoyed my first two projects, and when I told him that I was leaning towards doing the bass players, he offered to be of help with the younger players around town. In late February, I sent out my first research email to five of friends whom I consider to be among the established “old guard” of New Orleans players: George Porter, Reggie Scanlan of The Radiators, Tony Hall & Nick Daniels of Dumpstaphunk and Robert Mercurio of Galactic (my “baby” of the group).
George Gekas: The Revivalists Gentilly Stage (Sat 5/5/18)
Reggie Scanlan with “Mean” Willie Green [participant in The Different Drummer project]: Monkey Wranch The Hall at MP (Thur 11/17/16)
Nick Daniels & Tony Hall of Dumpstaphunk: Headcount Participation Party @ Highline Ballroom (Mon 11/5/12)
Robert Mercurio: Galactic @ Tipitina’s (Sat 5/4/19)
Porter was the first to respond. “The first name on that list should be George French and Peter Chuck Badie should be at the top of this list,” he told me. These were the names of the real true “old school.” George French was Porter’s mentor and I definitely wanted to try to honor the request of the greatest bass player I’ve ever known! (Side note: I once heard that Porter was playing a gig and French showed up and Porter just kind of froze up…which seems impossible to me…maybe it’s just a made-up story).
Next up. Tony Hall. Tony was my MVP when it came to names and contacts. His initial list contained 29 names! Not only did he add more over the next few months, but he also kept in close touch for updates on who I had reached and who had committed. Tony felt strongly, as did I, about making sure the players who had worked the clubs and recorded the soundtrack of the Crescent City for decades were represented.
As I started to flesh things out, George Gekas proved to be a man of his word. He also in contact; asking who I had and offering up lots of younger players. And with the added assistance of my good friend Myles Weeks, who I first met when he was starting out and playing with Eric Lindell, and his list of jazz players, I was able to compile a list of true NOLA bass talent.
Myles Weeks: Eric Lindell @ Fitzgerald’s (Berwyn, IL- Sat 2/1/14)
On April 5th, I sent my first an email to what would be a total of approximately 60 bass players and managers, many in the jazz and blues scene, many of whom I knew personally, and some of whom had recommended to me by fellow bass players or managers who are part of the NOLA community.
The subject line was: “Bass In Yo’ Face- an invitation to a historic gathering of the Low End.”
It began as follows:
Who: all the Bass players associated with New Orleans
What: an epic photo to help benefit The Roots of Music
Where: The Roots of Music- 2624 Burgundy St. New Orleans
When: Tuesday, April 30th at 12:30pm (this should take about an hour if everyone can get there on time)
Why: to honor those of you who make the world dance with thumping, popping, picking, bowing and strumming
The email went on to explain the purpose of the project and how honored I would be to have each one of them participate.
In twenty-five days, I reached out to approximately 60 players. In particular, I was thrilled to have two women agree to be part of the day. Amina Scott & Jessica Wright are wonderful young upright bass players. I was honored that both James Singleton and Ben Jaffe of Preservation Hall and its Jazz Band were willing to participate. I was even able to make George Porter happy by getting George French there (although I was never able to get in touch with Peter Chuck Badie). Sylvester “Snap” Andrews came down. This local legend actually taught Nick Daniels how to play!
Clockwise from top left: Amina Scott & Jessica Wright, Ben Jaffe & “Snap” Andrews, George Porter Jr. & George French listen to Chris Severin
By the time Tuesday the 20th came around, I was feeling a bit more relaxed than I had in the first two years. But pulling this off every year is not easy. When you’re aiming to get over forty working musicians together mid-afternoon during the busiest week of music in New Orleans, you never know what’s going to happen. And this year I was contending with an additional hurdle. The Roots of Music had moved to a new facility shortly after we wrapped the Six String Slingers in 2018. The old space had provided ideal cover for an outdoor group photo shoot in a town known for its weather extremes. But the new courtyard had almost no shade and the little that it did have, was rapidly disappearing as the sweltering mid-afternoon sun moved West. Quick work was going to be necessary. So, for the second year in a row, I hit Popeye’s for chicken for the players. One thing I learned last year, courtesy of local legend Deacon John, is how important it is to provide fried chicken! So, all my gear and roughly 80 pieces of chicken in hand, I headed to the new spot.
It was a bright sunny day. And it was HOT. And I was equal parts excited and tense. This shoot has been high-pressure from year one–so many of the musicians are on tight deadlines to get in and get out to their other commitments. So after handing off the chicken and asking everyone to sign in, I just started shooting in the courtyard until the sun completely shifted.
When a few people started saying they couldn’t stick around; I called an audible and moved to the front side of the building to get the group photo done. It wasn’t ideal but it was the only place in the shade. Did I mention how hot it was?! With a little patience, I got everyone assembled and made my main image. And with barely time to catch my breath, I was back at it making the individual portraits on our “new location” against the brick wall in the shade.
As always, working alone makes it almost impossible to document anything happening around me while I shoot portraits. But I do keep my eyes open and try to grab the occasional image of the players hanging out. This part is important to me on a personal level. Many of the musicians I’ve included over the past three years have commented to me that this experience is unique. Generally, musicians that play the same instrument rarely get a chance to socialize within their group, and so they frequently ask for a picture with their friends or idols. It’s hard to describe the emotion of taking these particular shots. Getting those small group images really helps make the day extra special.
Clockwise from top left: Nick Daniels III greets George French, Kerry Lewis & Ben Jaffe joke around while recreating a photo from their high school yearbook, Young friends Eric Vogel, George Gekas & “Elmo” Price, Old friends Mark Brooks, Nick Daniels III, Tony Hall, Chris Severin & Donald Ramsey, Robert Mercurio & Noah Young check out Jack Cruz‘s bass, Roland Guerin & Marc Pero, George Porter Jr. makes sure everyone knows who George French is
I still have my annual list of regrets. Jazz Fest is a perfectly imperfect moment in time each year. Between the crazy New Orleans weather in the late Spring and the non-stop shows every day for two weeks, it is almost impossible to make things work for everyone. And even when people can make it, they sometimes have very small windows of time to participate. But there were so many great moments in the limited time I had. I captured George Porter and his hero, George French together. I was even able to get three Georges together–The Revivalists’ George Gekkas between the two legendary elder statesmen. Somehow, I didn’t get individual portraits of either Porter or French–although, the image of them laughing is probably my favorite of the whole day. I made portraits of each of the Dumpstaphunk bass players, Tony Hall and Nick Daniels, (who were of great help to me in getting the list of players together). But somehow, we failed to get one of just the two of them together. James Singleton left before I got to shoot anything of him alone. He is one of the greatest players in that town. And a very cool cat. His work with Astral Project is out of this world. So I was thrilled that he is represented in the group photo. The same can be said of my friend Dave Pomerleau of Johnny Sketch & the Dirty Notes. Finally, at around 3:30pm, I made my final images of Charles Moore, brother of the local legend Deacon John Moore.
George Porter Jr. & George French enjoy a laugh???
Three Georges: Porter, Gekas & French [not a law firm]
Unfortunately, time constraints and prior commitments result in missing shots that I really wanted to get. Cassandra Faulconer was out of town. So was my buddy Carl Dufrene Jr., who spent many years playing with Anders Osborne. Sam Price of Honey Island Swamp Band had a midday slot at the same Threadhead Patry that Porter needed to get to. Calvin Turner, who played with Marc Broussard (and others), is now a New Orleans Police officer and couldn’t get off work. And sadly, Amina Scott showed up just after the group image was done. And I never did get in touch with Peter Chuck or Daryl Johnson of Neville Brothers fame.
However, what I’ve learned over the course of three years is that this is an incredibly special opportunity for me. I am beyond grateful to all the musicians who continue to show me their love and respect for my work when they volunteer their time when they should probably be at home resting (if they don’t actually have a gig to be at ten minutes later). And I am thankful that I was able to connect with The Roots of Music team who have been extremely helpful and so happy to have me championing their amazing cause. As they say, the proof is in the pudding. It was a little challenging, but ultimately, I think we made another great group portrait.
Bass In Yo’ Face
Back row: Cornell Williams, George French,Jeff Tyson, Myles Weeks, Jerry “JBlakk” Henderson, Charlie Wooton, Albey Balgochian, Martin Masakowski, Kerry Lewis, Donald Ramsey, Chris Severin, Mark Brooks, Andrew “Elmo” Price, Stephen Bohnstengel, Matt Booth, Robert Mercurio, Dave Pomerlau, Phil Wang, Paul Boudreaux
Middle row: Sylvester “Snap” Andrews, Roland Guerin, Reggie Scanlon, Charles Moore, Mike “Bass” Ballard, Dewey Sampson, Jessica Wright, George Gekas, Rene Coman, Jack Cruz, Eric Vogel, Ron Johnson, Tony Hall & Ben Jaffe
This year’s shoot took the same amount of time as the year before, But with some self-control, I cut down my click count to around 1900 on two cameras (Nikon D4 and Fujifilm X-T3). And now, it’s been seven and a half months. A project like this I can only work on in fits. I need time and space to really decide what I like and what I don’t. I’ve culled it all down to around 260 images. As always, I used my wife, Robyn for a second opinion. And ultimately, I came up with 144 images of the 41 bass players related to the Crescent City.
(Note: there were too many great images from the day to include here. But you can check out the gallery on my site. Which you definitely should. Especially if you don’t see any individual portraits of your favorite players.)
I rarely think of any “Part Threes” being any good (certainly not The Godfather Part III or Die Hard With A Vengeance). But once again, I think I really accomplished something special here. New Orleans is a magical place. But it really exists in its own little bubble. So too many of these people are unknown to the world. My hope is that this series helps to spread their names as well as inform people about the wonderful work done locally by The Roots of Music with the city’s children.
Now it is once again time to sit back, relax and start thinking about Part Four. I have a few ideas and have already planted a few seeds. But I’m curious, who do you think I should focus on in 2020? You can leave that comment for me below.
P.S.- All of the images from The Different Drummer Project, Six String Slingers and Bass In Yo Face are available for sale through those hyperlinks. 50% of all profits go to The Roots of Music (You can also learn how to get involved by clicking here).
P.S.S.- If you are interested in simply donating directly to The Roots of Music, you can do so by going here. In the top right corner, click “Donate” and if you don’t mind, under “Purpose of Donation,” please put: Marc Millman’s Bass In Yo Face project