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.