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A Life Half-Fast

New Orleans Jazz Museum Celebrates Pete Fountain



2017 marked the first Mardi Gras in over forty years that Pete Fountain did not lead his merry krewe through Uptown to wake up the city to the day’s offerings. The legendary clarinetist died last August, but New Orleanians could take comfort that during Carnival his spirit was very much alive. There is a similar feeling walking through The New Orleans Jazz Museum’s new exhibition, “Pete Fountain: A Life Half-Fast.” Perhaps it's the dozens of album covers, Jazz Fest posters, and photographs that cover the walls, or perhaps it’s the life-sized figure of Fountain himself holding court in the corner of the exhibition room — but within the walls of the Old U.S. Mint, Fountain never left us. 

 

In the near-year since his passing, Fountain's status as that of a quintessential New Orleanian and a musical ambassador to his hometown still holds true. “His legacy is strong,” said Louisiana State Museum’s Music Curator David Kunian. “People still think about him and his music and what he did. He was a beloved figure and a killer player.” 

 

On Thursday (3.30), The New Orleans Jazz Museum hosted the opening reception for their year-long exhibition dedicated to the late, great music man. The evening was a testament to Fountain’s legacy as well as a celebration of what New Orleanians love most: music, food, drink, and conversation on all the aforementioned. Large-scale prints of Fountain, from publicity shots during his time on The Lawrence Welk Show to snapshots of him in full Fat Tuesday regalia, were pinned on the walls of The Jazz Museum at the Old U.S. Mint above artful platters of fruits, cheeses, breads, and spreads. Servers with trays of sparkling wine weaved between spectators and tables of instruments and sheet music from Fountain’s contemporaries. Eager museum goers, music nuts, and even a few members of the Half-Fast Walking Club posed next to the various artifacts of a life fully-lived, half-fast. 

 

The exhibition itself is a small curated collection, touching upon the path of the man born Pierre Dewey Fountain Jr., from his roots in Bayou St. John to his time on The Lawrence Welk Show and The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson (as one part of the show is dubbed “Teenage Heartthrob to Hep Cat”), to becoming a key figure in the trad jazz revival of the 70’s and 80’s. The items in the show were sourced from the archives of the Louisiana State Museum’s Music Collection, which houses over 50,000 items — most of the archival pieces, Kunian said, have never been seen by the public.

 

At first glance, it seems a near-impossible challenge to distill the essence of a New Orleans legend — someone who recorded over 100 albums, performed at Jazz Fest 44 times, played on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show 56 times, kicked off Mardi Gras day for over four decades — into a few rooms. “Any attendees will get a sense of who and what Pete Fountain was,” Kunian said, of the intimate-yet-accessible look at Fountain’s life. Personal tokens like holiday cards, bobble heads, and doubloons from Mardi Gras past are set alongside albums, posters, the life-sized Fountain. 

 

As the LSM’s Music Curator, Kunian will lead a free lecture at the Mint on April 13, exploring the icon’s life and legacy half-fast. More than that, the lecture and the exhibition highlights what Fountain and his contemporaries represent for this city. “As New Orleans moves forward into the 21st century and everyone worries about gentrification and New Orleans losing its identity, we need to look at some of the quintessential New Orleanians to make sure we keep what makes the city unique," said Kunian. "People like Pete, Frank Davis, Hank Staples, Earl King, Kalamu Ya Salaam, and others can guide [us]."

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Contributors

Renard Boissiere, Evan Z.E. Hammond, Naimonu James, Wilson Koewing, J.A. Lloyd, Nina Luckman, Dead Huey Long, Alexis Manrodt, Joseph Santiago, Andrew Smith, Cynthia Via, Austin Yde

Photographers


Art Director

Michael Weber, B.A.

Editor


Listings Editor

Linzi Falk

Editor Emeritus

Alexis Manrodt


B. E. Mintz


Stephen Babcock

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