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The Killer and the Crooner 

How did a locally produced likeness of Jerry Lee Lewis get bounced in favor of a Matisse-like rendering of Harry Connick Jr.? With Jazz Fest posters, there's always more than meets the eye.

Jerry Lee Lewis no longer plays the piano with his feet or sets the instrument afire at the end of his set. But this side of 70, the rocker's hands are still a blur over the keyboard, and the packed house still jumps to its feet when he launches into 'Boogie Woogie Man from Tennessee.''He's still got it,'said LaVerne Duncan, who came down from Georgia to catch Lewis' recent show at Grand Casino in Gulfport, Miss. 'To be that old of a man, and still draw a crowd this big.'

Some folks in Lewis' home state of Louisiana reckon so, too, and preliminary plans were made to honor the 'Ferriday Fireball'on the 2004 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival poster. 'Jerry Lee's got lots of energy; he's very animated and colorful, he's a good subject to paint, and I was all excited,'says Bill Jonas, the New Orleans artist contracted to render the image. 'I shouldn't have been that confident.'

That's because few plans for a Jazz Fest poster ever work out as intended. By January, Jerry Lee was out; Harry Connick Jr. was in. 'I was disappointed, but that's the way it goes,'Jonas says.

Since the posters' debut in 1975 -- just five years after the birth of Jazz Fest itself -- they've served a dual purpose: to turn a profit for the Jazz and Heritage Foundation and for the poster's producers, and to provide festival fans with a stand-alone piece of art, meant to capture the spirit of Jazz Fest.

'One of the driving forces when I had this idea was, I needed something affordable to put on my walls,'says Bud Brimberg, who launched the commemorative silkscreen posters in 1975 after he graduated from Tulane Law School. 'I was making art for my generation.'

But unseen to most Fest-goers is the progress of the Jazz Fest poster, from an idea to an end product -- a path often strewn with dead ends, revisions, and huge conceptual changes, as in this year's Jerry Lee/Harry switch up. Similarly, in 1996, Louisiana artist George Rodrigue had finished a painting of Mahalia Jackson for Jazz Fest when conflict cropped up with her estate. Another subject, Pete Fountain, was swapped out at the last minute, with Rodrigue completing the painting in just two days.

'All those people got a year to make a decision,'Rodrigue says. 'And you're always down to the last day.'

Paul Rogers, this year's artist who also created the 2002 poster, concurs. 'It's always a last-minute thing &138; when you're working on it, you don't know if it's going to fly. There's a lot of cooks in the kitchen.'

Brimberg freely admits all this. Crafting Jazz Fest posters, he says, is like the old cliche about making sausage. 'You would never eat it if you knew what goes into it,'Brimberg says. 'It's art, for God's sake. It's unpredictable.'

Equally unpredictable is public response. In March, Times-Picayune art critic Doug MacCash wrote a scathing critique of this year's poster -- a Matisse-like image of Harry Connick Jr. by Rogers, a California artist who had created the festival's Wynton Marsalis poster in 2002.

In a March feature story titled 'The Worst Jazzfest Poster Ever?'MacCash blasted Brimberg for bypassing local artists to rehire Rogers; Rogers, for rendering what he called a 'soul-less'design; Connick, a 'Crescent City retro crooner'and 'network sitcom heartthrob'(Connick currently appears on NBC's Will & Grace) for embodying what he considered style over substance; and the poster itself, which MacCash dubbed a weak and insipid Matisse imitation. 'The 2004 poster symbolizes the flowery, homogenous, mass-market music industry that has blossomed where thorny Crescent City roots music once grew,'wrote MacCash, who declined to discuss his critique further with Gambit Weekly.

Brimberg felt stung, saying he had provided MacCash with information about how he had tried to work with a local artist, and how most of the poster profits stay in New Orleans. He doesn't apologize for the image, though; he says he loves it. 'Harry is an extremely multi-talented, gifted, handsome person,'Brimberg says. 'God has blessed Harry Connick Jr., and the picture reflects that grace and beauty.'

Jazz Fest posters haven't always featured images of prominent subjects by prominent artists, and they didn't always sell off the bat for nearly a grand. Brimberg can recall the times he mixed the ink himself for posters that sold for less than five bucks. The first two years, he used art supplied by Jazz Fest. In 1977, he started asking artists to supply original work, images meant to evoke the spirit and flavor of the Fest without depicting anyone in particular. 'In the old days, this was a concept- and artist-driven poster,'he says.

Brimberg remembers that, while at Tulane, he became fascinated by vintage fine-art posters by artists such as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Elizabeth Tipton. For a Tulane class project, he pitched an idea to Jazz Fest founder Quint Davis to let him create similar posters for the festival. Davis responded that he didn't need posters. 'He pointed to this pink-and-black thing that was going in shop windows to announce the coming of the festival. I said, &140;I have something different in mind.''

Brimberg pledged to make the venture risk-free for Jazz Fest by covering the cost of the posters, and Davis agreed to it. Brimberg printed 1,000 posters designed by a Tulane student, and gave them to galleries and shops to sell. 'It went on to actually make a small profit, and I got an &140;A' in the course.'

The next year, Brimberg doubled the number of posters, hiked the price a little, and again sold them all out. He also got his first taste of criticism. 'The first year, nobody had an opinion because it seemed so unimportant: &140;It's cool; here's $4.25 for it.' But the next year people were already carping: &140;It's so big and red! Where am I going to put a big red thing like that?''

After that, Brimberg began trolling for artists. Some, such as 1977 poster designer Kathleen Joffrion (who depicted a jazz band against a yellow mountain landscape), he found locally; others came from elsewhere, including the Canadian husband-and-wife team of Charest & Brousseau (who created the 1978 version, a depiction of two people on a porch playing trombone and banjo). 'At some point the poster became, next to ticket sales, the largest contributor to [Jazz Fest's] funds. It still is,'Brimberg says. Festival officials began assuming a bigger role in choosing and approving poster designs.

For the 20th-anniversary poster in 1989, Jazz Fest wanted to do something different. 'Up to '88 we weren't doing personalities; we were doing abstractions,'Brimberg says. 'I had a specific idea: Fats Domino.'

Local artist Richard Thomas came up with a Warholesque print of Domino. Brimberg's company, ProCreations, soon realized it had a new moneymaker in posters signed by both the artist and the subject. It followed up in 1990 with a poster featuring George 'Kid Sheik'Colar.

After that, Brimberg, who by now lived in New York, briefly parted ways with the festival. Jazz Fest had wanted minority participation in the poster production; Brimberg resisted the change. A couple of local companies took on the posters for the next three years, but without the same success as ProCreations. Brimberg agreed to come back in 1994 as part of a re-formed company, IconoGraphx, that included minority talent. (His current production company, art4now inc, took over in 1998 and also produces Congo Square posters and HowAhYa festival clothing.)

With a desire to return with a splash and create something big for the 25th anniversary, Brimberg recruited famous German-born pop-art icon Peter Max, who created an extra-long horizontal print featuring a slew of Louisiana musical greats, including Danny and Blue Lu Barker, Clifton Chenier and, hanging upside down, Pete Fountain. 'Even though the image was frankly not my favorite by far, it just blew out,'Brimberg says.

More big names came along. Rodrigue created three posters featuring his Blue Dog alongside Louis Armstrong, Pete Fountain and Al Hirt; James Michalopoulos painted Dr. John, Armstrong and Mahalia Jackson. Blockbuster sales followed.

So, too, did more criticism. Some Jazz Fest aficionados and artists were miffed that commercially successful artists were getting the exposure a lesser-known artist could use, and that Jazz Fest -- the purported champion of local talent -- often was contracting its art to non-residents.

Brimberg argues he's used non-Louisiana artists from the start, without complaint until recently. 'The prime mandate of the project is not to give any particular person a job. That said, it is easier to work with someone who plays regularly to an audience of collectors,'he says. 'The thing I find of interest is how few artists have sought us out to show us their portfolios. &138; How could one be considered excluded if one never sought to be included?'

Rodrigue recalls that when Jazz Fest approached him in 1995, he resisted. His Blue Dog had become an international icon, and he was already famous. 'For 25 years, when I was doing Cajun art, they never came close to asking me,'he says. He finally agreed on condition that he be allowed to paint Louis Armstrong. 'I really didn't want to have the Blue Dog in it. But it's politics; you're not dealing with artists, you're dealing with other people, and if I could insist that Louis Armstrong be in it, they could insist that the Blue Dog be in it.'

Rodrigue acknowledges that he heard grumbling about the ubiquity of the Blue Dog and its presence alongside New Orleans' greatest jazz legend. 'I could understand the criticism,'he says. But that year's poster made record-breaking sales, and the next year, Jazz Fest came calling again -- at the eleventh hour, according to Rodrigue. 'They came back, pleading with me, and I said no, no, no, no,'he laughs. Finally, as a favor to desperate festival organizers, he says, he relented. 'I was helping them out of a jam.'

The last-minute replacement of Mahalia Jackson with Pete Fountain aggravated him, he says, and he swore he was through. Four years later, though, Hirt's widow asked him to render the image of her husband, who had collected Rodrigue's work. 'How could I say no?'he asks. 'Now it's over. I'm definitely done. I have contributed, and I made a lot of money for them.'

Rodrigue thinks the festival should hold an international art contest whose winner would get the poster deal. 'It ought to be an open competition, and have everybody vote on it. That way, the public would be involved,'he says. 'I told them I thought so, but nobody listens.'

Jerry Lee Lewis was actually a secondary choice for the 2004 poster subject. Jazz Fest bigwigs had indicated from the beginning they wanted Connick for this year's poster, as they considered the New Orleans native and jazz musician the better subject for the Fest's 35th anniversary. Jonas, in a letter to The Times-Picayune that the daily paper didn't publish, outlined the possible reasons: 'Jerry Lee Lewis wasn't from New Orleans and his infamous private life was too controversial. He didn't fit the &140;festival image.' &138; Had the decision been left to Brimberg alone, the 2004 Jazz Fest poster would have had a Louisiana music icon as its subject and a New Orleans artist as its creator.'

Brimberg petitioned Connick's managers for permission to use the musician's image on the Fest poster. They would only consent if Jazz Fest used a specific artist of their choosing, Brimberg says. But that artist -- Brimberg declines to name him, but says he's not a New Orleanian -- indicated he wouldn't accept input on the final image or allow revisions. Brimberg asked Connick's managers if he could locate another artist and, with luck, come up with a design everybody liked.

At the same time, he needed an alternative. Brimberg approached Jonas, who'd created a poster for another ProCreations client, the Albuquerque Balloon Festival (and who also has created art used on the cover of Gambit Weekly). The two decided that Lewis, a Louisiana native who'd played Jazz Fest, would make a good subject.

'I know Harry Connick Jr. was always a top priority as far as Jazz Fest,'Jonas says. 'Bud always said if it's not this year it might be next year; it's a three-year contract &138; but after I signed the contract, as far as I was concerned, it seemed to me it was a pretty sure thing.'

In the meantime, Brimberg says he contacted a New Orleans artist (whom he won't name) to paint Connick. But, he says, communication with that artist faltered, too. Brimberg says he was on the phone with his friend Rogers, 'whining'about the progress of the poster, when Rogers offered to come up with a Connick image. Soon after, Brimberg quit negotiations with the New Orleans artist to work with Rogers.

The two discussed how Connick should be portrayed. 'We started talking about his being a handsome person and composer; he was blessed by the Graces,'Brimberg says. 'That led to us discussing the Odalisque paintings by Matisse. We thought that would be an interesting approach to Harry.'

Rogers says he wondered if that was such a good idea -- 'or am I setting myself up for bad comparisons?'He calls the painting a riff on Matisse. 'In the same way a musician doesn't hide the fact he's quoting a riff from Louis Armstrong, I don't want people to think I'm hiding the fact this is along the lines of Matisse.'

Meanwhile, Jonas had completed an almost-finished version of the Lewis painting before he left for Florence for the prestigious international art competition the Biennale dell'Arte Contemporanea, where he won its Medici Medal for painting. He returned to the States in December to the news that Lewis had gotten the boot in favor of Connick.

Brimberg and Jonas both agree that Jonas' painting of Lewis, in its current form, might be considered too 'edgy'for Jazz Fest. Brimberg anticipates further revisions if the image would ever be used.

Both Jazz Fest and Connick's management ultimately approved Rogers' painting. Rogers has read MacCash's critique, and while he doesn't want to comment on it, he will discuss his passion for jazz and New Orleans: 'It's one of my favorite cities in the world. WWOZ plays in my studio,'he says. Rogers stays in California mainly to be near his children from a previous marriage, he says, adding that he's planning a jazz book titled Jazz ABC with Wynton Marsalis, who has become a friend.

The Jazz Fest poster 'is not that big of a gravy train; you don't get rich from it. A ton of work goes into it,'says Rogers, who is displaying the finished painting, along with its sketches and revisions, at Stella Jones Gallery this Thursday. 'To me, the biggest reason to do it is to be associated with Jazz Fest.'

Toward the end of Jerry Lee Lewis' show in Gulfport, the aging rocker concluded 'Whole Lotta Shakin' Going On'by immediately launching into 'Great Balls of Fire.'The crowd, on its feet and dancing, cheered as Lewis stood up and kicked his piano stool away with one glossy black cowboy boot. Then, visibly exhausted, he acknowledged his fans and walked slowly backstage to a limousine idling outside.

The tenuous cultivation of Jazz Fest poster art means there's no guarantee Lewis will ever be honored with one. Clustered around the stage entrance of the Grand Casino, Lewis' fans say they hope Lewis makes it onto a poster while he's still able to play the Fair Grounds. 'You'd better appreciate people like Jerry Lee when they're still alive,'says Lance Rowland of Napoleonville.

Lewis' longtime guitarist, Kenny Lovelace, agrees it would be nice if Lewis got the poster while he's still packing concert halls. 'The Killer is still rockin','he says. 'Jerry's electrifying, and he's still around. Jerry's contribution to American music is legendary.'

Lovelace says in the past, Lewis' band had 'enjoyed playing the Jazz Fest,'and would like to return. 'We hope they'll put him up on that poster, where he's supposed to be.

click to enlarge "Jerry Lee's got lots of energy; he's very animated and - colorful, he's a good subject to paint, and I was all - excited," says Bill Jonas. "I shouldn't have been that - confident." - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • "Jerry Lee's got lots of energy; he's very animated and colorful, he's a good subject to paint, and I was all excited," says Bill Jonas. "I shouldn't have been that confident."
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