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1973 Galleries - Jazz in Art by Luba Glade

Galleries - Jazz in Art

By Luba Glade

                                              Vieux Varre Courier / April 13-19, 1973 / page 15

            At first glance the whole field of “jazz” art seems pretty barren.  Even for someone who has been concerned with local art for years and years, the influence of jazz music on the visual arts is a thing which is more felt than seen.

            It’s only after you dig a little that you realize there’s something there.  And then it comes to you.  But, of course, jazz itself - the homegrown variety, that is, of the jazz funerals and the sidewalk concerts, really didn’t begin emerging into the city limelight until after mid-century.

            Although it was a vital part of the large black community for decades, such were the realities of segregated life that those jazz musicians from New Orleans who made it to the top did it in other parts of the country and in Europe.

            The course of art history in the 1950s was hardly conducive to preserving the jazz influence in terms of local painting, drawing, and sculpture.  The so-called “international style” had taken a firm grip on the imaginations of many of the crative people.  Non-objective, abstract expressionist painting became a primary concern with serious local artists to one degree or another.

            But there were also stirrings of another kind in the art community in the mid-1950s.  While other artists were experimenting with the newfound freedoms of action painting and abstract art, a small group of painters were gathered around the “Associate Artists” gallery on St. Peter Street, where Preservation Hall is now located.

            The gallery was owned and operated by Larry Borenstein, and there is no doubt that it played a seminal role not only in the development of “jazz” art, but, indeed, in the development of local interest in jazz itself.

            Borenstein liked to listen to the oldtime jazz himself, and, since his gallery was open at night, he began in 1954 inviting some of the oldtimers to come play in his gallery.  “It was an easy, natural thing - what happened next,” Borenstein recalls.  “The artists who were in and out of the gallery really responded to the jazz sound and to the essential honesty of the people who played it.”  And that’s how “jazz” art was born - in New Orleans, at any rate.

            In those early days, Sidney Kittinger, an artist now living and working in California, did about 1000 watercolors on the jazz musicians.  Andrew Lang and Richard Hoffman, both now dead, produced large bodies of work on jazz.  Charles Richards, who still lives in the French Quarter, produced both paintings and sculpture on the jazz theme.  And these were not all.

            Preservation Hall, which was to do the pioneer work in promoting the New Orleans sound of oldtime jazz, emerged in it present form in 1961.  It was then that jazz paintings, which had hitherto been only a by-product of the individual painter’s interest in the art form and its people, became a bit more institutionalized.

            In 1961-62 Borenstein commissioned Xavier de Callatay to do a series of portraits of jazz musicians.  And it was also in the early 60s that French Quarter artist Noel Rockmore followed his genuine interest in the subject matter and translated his feelings for the music and musicians which are today regarded as definitive in the field.  Widely imitated in the ensuing years, some of the paintings can still be seen at Borenstein’s Royal Street gallery at Pere Antoine Alley, where they fetch between $2,000 and $5,000 each.  (There’s a beauty also currently hanging in the stairwell of the Downtown Gallery on Chartres Street.)

            But, on the overall art scene, jazz was not an important factor during most of the 60s.  The late Leonard Flettrich, a life-long resident of “below Canal,” produced a series of major paintings based on jazz and the Mardi Gras Indians in the mid-60s.  A few were shown by his dealer at the time, and the whole series traveled to Germany for the “Volkfest” in 1967, but nothing more came of it.

            During that time, the local art museum acquired a Matisse lithograph portfolio given by Mr. and Mrs. Fritz Bultman, for which the master did 20 designs inspired by jazz.

            On the current art scene, jazz buffs who like their art flavored with the wail of the jazz trumpet and Sweet Emma’s tinkly piano can find satisfaction in a number of galleries and in a number of media and price ranges.

            The Borenstein gallery probably still has the largest number of paintings and drawings by the people who began the movement.  The Downtown Gallery, which was established about the time of Preservation Hall, has also featured work on jazz themes.  Now, for the Jazzfest, they have a selection of drawings and posters by Mildred Fagan.  And in the past they’ve featured the work of Alan Flattman, both prints and paintings, and the jazz paintings of Beauregard Redmond.

            A few of the early de Callatay etchings on jazz musicians have found their way into the prestigious print collection of the Tahir Gallery on Chartres Street, where they were featured in its recent show of “Louisiana Art and Artists.”

            The Vincent Mann Gallery on Chartres Street this season featured the work of Photographer Leo Touchet, who explored the whole realm of the jazz funeral, another one of those wonderful customs indigenous to the local black community and fast disappearing from the scene.  The skill in handling the medium and the sensitivity to the subject matter went a long way in emphasizing the importance of photography and Mr. Touchet on the local art scene.

            Yet another factor is the emergence from the New Orleans black community of a number of serious painters and photographers.  Bruce Brice, whose primitive canvases portray life in the local black community, has produced work dealing with jazz, particularly the jazz funeral.

            On the level of “tourist” art, a number of painters are doing work closely related to some of the paintings mentioned above.  Three of the best-known are Jack Cooley, who sells his acrylics at his St. Peter Street gallery; Kenney Burke, whose pen and ink drawings can be found at the Art Colony on Chartres Street; and the watercolors of Leo Meiersdorff at the Liberty Gallery located in a patio on Royal Street.   

Photo caption: Noel Rockmore: This French Quarter artist in the early ‘60s followed his genuine interest in jazz by translating his feelings onto canvas.  Today they are regarded as the definitive work in the field.  Above, is an oil portrait of trombonist “Jim Robinson (1965).”

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