The Jazz Fest Poster: Part 2

With this post, George and I remember Mrs. Frances Fernandez, long-time President and Board member of the New Orleans Jazz Club, who dedicated her life to the appreciation of New Orleans’s jazz musicians. We also remember Bill Hemmerling, a beloved local artist who painted the 2005 poster for the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.
After painting Louis Armstrong in 1995 and Pete Fountain in 1996, George Rodrigue declared that he was finished with Jazz Fest. The last minute subject change and picketing artists in 1996 affected him greatly, and he did not want to deal again with the politics and personalities.

As the millennium approached, ProCreations called with hopes that he would reconsider for the important year. The subject was trumpeter Al Hirt, who passed away in the spring of 1999. (pictured, New Orleans Jazz Club President Frances Fernandez, Al Hirt, Pete Fountain, in a rare photograph salvaged from Katrina’s floodwaters)

ProCreations, producing the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival poster since its inception, hoped to honor Hirt with a Rodrigue portrait for the 2000 poster.

Despite his earlier protests, George hesitated. Hirt was an old friend and a collector of his Blue Dog paintings. The two first met when George painted his portrait as a Louisiana Legend and they were honored together by Louisiana Public Broadcasting in 1991.

(pictured: Louisiana Legends, 1991, by George Rodrigue, standing left, joined by Dr. Michael E. Debakey, Al Hirt, General Robert H. Barrow, USMC, and Bob Petit)

The opportunity to paint Hirt again was tempting as a personal tribute as well as a millennium commemoration. Nevertheless, George declined, still stinging from the 1996 Jazz Fest poster experience.

That summer of 1999 he received a call from Hirt’s widow, Beverly, who explained that it was her husband’s wish that George paint him for the poster. This was a request he could not refuse, and he agreed to the portrait, his third and final in a trilogy of jazz greats.

The public backlash was immediate from local artists and press. This time, however, George was prepared mentally, knowing that it would not be easy. He created the poster as a tribute to an old friend, and this lofty resolve softened the blows.

Among other things, George was accused of a lack of originality in his concept. However, as you may remember, his original design for 1996 with Mahalia Jackson included a different background. It was the last minute subject change and short deadline that left him without time to rework his composition for the Pete Fountain design. Now with Al Hirt, although George had plenty of time, it made sense to paint him in the same way as the others, creating a trilogy of three great Jazz musicians playing music under the oaks.

Unsure at first about the inclusion of the Blue Dog in his designs, George came to realize its importance in the trilogy. Through these three Jazz Fest posters the Blue Dog became (for many) a symbol of New Orleans.

It’s been ten years since George’s last Jazz Fest poster, and although ProCreations calls he continues to decline. He truly does feel that the poster should showcase upcoming Louisiana artists, and he enjoyed the phenomenon personally already to its fullest. Ironically, people visit his gallery all of the time assuming he’s a regular Jazz Fest poster artist, creating the poster often or even every year.

Other artists, however, passed George’s marker long ago. James Michalopoulos, for example, created five Jazz Fest posters in the past twelve years. Highly successful and archetypal of New Orleans, the posters are among our favorites and like George’s they work well in a series. (pictured, James Michalopoulos, Hunt Slonem, George Rodrigue, 2009)

George also hopes to see artist Hunt Slonem create the poster. Slonem (pictured above) is a New York transplant who first came to New Orleans as a Tulane student years ago, but more recently makes Louisiana his second home with the restoration of historic plantations such as Albania and Lakeside.

George admires artist Douglas Bourgeois and his 2008 poster of Irma Thomas, as well as Bill Hemmerling, who painted Charles ‘Buddy’ Bolden in 2005. As with Rodrigue and Michalopolous, Bourgeois and Hemmerling are Louisiana artists focused on regional motifs, and their well-defined, yet unique styles add variety to the poster series.

(pictured, George Rodrigue with Bill Hemmerling’s painted ‘New Orleans Jazz’ bed sheet, which hangs in our foyer, New Orleans)

(pictured, Jacques Rodrigue with Bill Hemmerling, who lost his life to cancer last year. His paintings such as Café du Monde helped revive interest in area folk art)

Finally, George was pleased with ProCreation’s decision to use Tony Bennett as the poster artist this year, a musician and painter with strong Louisiana ties, who plays Jazz Fest and knows personally many of its musicians. With the support of his good friend Joe Segreto, a beloved New Orleans restaurateur and former agent to Louis Prima, Bennett painted Prima in celebration of the 100th anniversary of his birth. (pictured, George Rodrigue, Tony Bennett, Joe Segreto, 2010)

Great posters and artist-friends aside, George occasionally ponders the question,

“How could there be a better Jazz Fest poster?”

His concept, which falls on deaf ears, involves a contest open to all Louisiana artists, with the winner chosen by the state’s residents.

For a while the poster ruined the festival for us. Like every Jazz Fest poster artist, George spent long hours signing and remarking thousands of prints, and by the time he finished, the Fest seemed like work, an exercise in public relations as opposed to a musical escape.

Last year we ventured back for the first time in more than a decade. As we approached the gate he told me,

“I’ll give you five minutes.”

Six hours later, wearing my new pink Fancy Pony Land skirt with the leather appliqué pistols (which I changed into behind a curtain in their craft tent) and drunk on the music of Theresa Anderson, Patty Griffin and Emmy Lou Harris, I whispered in his ear,

“Ready to go?”

He ignored me, and we closed the place down, lingering with some friends at the gate before taking a leisurely walk to dinner, as we recalled the day and the music. It took fifteen years, but Jazz Fest finally returned to us…


For Part 1 of this story, link here.

4 thoughts on “The Jazz Fest Poster: Part 2

  1. Dorian Bennett gave me permission to post his comments below, when he was unsuccessful accessing the public comment frame:

    I read your information on George and the widow of Al Hirt bringing George back into the Jazzfest poster business. I did not know this but am so very pleased that it did happen.

    I have served on the Jazz and Heritage Festival and Foundation board for over 10 years and during this period I served as chair of the image committee for posters, etc. Be assured that every board member in that room heard me speak volumes as to George's talent and how we should if at all possible have George bring the image home yearly for us. His images with the Blue Dog sold out the very first weekend with not a sheet of paper left anywhere for anyone to find. I cherish these images and only wish I could have afforded to purchase one of those paintings.

    I loved reading how George said at the gate when you entered that you would have 5 minutes at the fest but then several hours later you were still there enjoying your day and lovely life together at the fest. Awesome. Thanks always, Dorian Bennett

  2. Thank you Wendy, for serving as the historian and archivist for this talented Louisiana Treasure, George Rodrigue.

    My family in Lafayette has watched George grow in life, in his work, and in his gift as a Cultural Liaison for Louisiana, not just Acadiana.

    Respectfully, Kevin Le Blanc

  3. Thank you, Kevin. Your comments – especially coming from the Lafayette community where everyone knows George so well and witnessed far more history than I, means a great deal. Thank you for reading. All best to you – Wendy

  4. This is a great photo of you and George! I also 'closed out' the Jazz Fest in the years I was privileged to attend. Friends and family would attend as we were able, and it was always a premiere event in our lives! Unfortunately, we were never able to buy a poster, so I am doubly (triplely?) grateful to become acquainted with George's posters of these great musicians in this signal event.

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