Allison Miner’s New Orleans Beat

Allison Miner at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival in 1991

Here’s a moving film tribute to Allison Miner, a beautiful spirit who made a major difference to the preservation and perpetuation of the musical culture of New Orleans between her arrival in the Crescent City in 1967 and her death in 1995 at age 46. Allison was instrumental in establishing the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, albeit with a sexist-driven subordinate role and title that she discusses in Amy Nesbitt’s film. As Jazz Fest has grown into a mega event headlined by the biggest names in music– this year the Rolling Stones top the bill– it’s the Heritage Stage, which Allison founded, that the cognoscenti still favor for its emphasis on the traditional styles of music (blues, gospel, Cajun, Tex-Mex) that the fest was originally dedicated to, and interviews with performers, some of whom are little-known. In a 1990 interview with The Times-Picayune, Allison said, “This is my way of bringing Jazz Fest back to the way it was in the old days, like sitting around the living room floor and getting to know these people. It was our way of having a more intimate involvement with the musicians.” The venue is now known as the Allison Minor Music Heritage Stage.

Miner was an early and ardent supporter of Danny Barker’s efforts to revive brass bands among New Orleans’ youth. The Dirty Dozen and Re-Birth Brass Bands are the best known of that endeavour, and Allison managed Re-Birth from its infancy.

Allison discusses her own odyssey into, away from, and back again to New Orleans. It warmed my heart to hear her singing a song she first learned on an album recorded at Angola Prison in Lousiana; it was sung there by a sewing machine lady, and as you’ll hear, Miner made it her own. I particularly loved seeing Professor Longhair, whom Allison helped rediscover and present at the 1971 Jazz Fest; George Wein, the fest’s producer, said, “Her devotion to Professor Longhair gave him the best years of his life.” Miner’s husband, saxophonist Andy Kaslow, led Fess’s back-up band during the period. There’s also a short clip of Duke Ellington and Mahalia Jackson at the inaugural festival that you may recognize from a widely distributed photograph by Michael P. Smith. Other highlights include a few frames of blues pianist Roosevelt Sykes playing Jazz Fest with Dizzy Gillespie looking on; Allison’s recollection of country blues legend Robert Pete Williams; and footage of the traditional New Orleans funeral that she was given. Thanks to New Orleans pianist Tom McDermott for posting this film on Facebook earlier this week, and to director Amy Nesbitt for her dedication to Allison’s legacy. 

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