The Day the Music Stopped

“Hammond: B-3, 9th Ward, New Orleans.” Frank Stewart. 2006 [photo of a photo]

We will never forget. Hurricane Katrina. 08.29.05.


About the Image: I shot the photo of a photo nine years ago while in New York City. The Hammond B-3 organ was destroyed in Hurricane Katrina 15 years ago today [New Orleans, August 29, 2005]. The photograph is part of Traveling Full Circle: Frank Stewart’s Visual Music, which was exhibited at at the Lincoln Center in New York City in 2011.  You can learn more about Stewart, longtime Senior Staff Photographer for Jazz at the Lincoln Center, and his body of work by visiting his website: Frank Stewart.

A Moment with the Empress and the Lady

When I taught African American literature, blues artists Bessie Smith’s and Billie Holiday’s songs were key in deepening students’ understanding of the continuities of Black experience and literature and arts in America. I haven’t taught the literature since we moved to Northern Alabama, so their music is collecting dust. In fact, I think the collections are still in boxes.

A couple of days ago, I ran across a Billie Holiday postcard that I’ve had for quite some time–a familiar photo of Lady Day, with the signature gardenia in her hair.

Billie Holiday, c. 1936, Photograph by Robin Carson, from the Collection of Ole Brask

The sender’s note referenced listening to Billie Holiday and Bessie Smith days before sending the postcard. Interestingly, the day after rediscovering the postcard–yesterday, in fact–I received a Bessie Smith postcard from my postcard pal Connie F. Talk about coincidence!

Bessie Smith (1895-1937), Photograph courtesy of Michael Ochs Archives, Pomegranate Communications, Inc.

The music goddesses are telling me to take a moment for Bessie and Billie. They are the best medicine for the madness of the days ahead.

Perhaps, you need a moment too.

Here’s a listening guide of the Empress of the Blues, Bessie Smith, singing “Backwater Blues” with James P. Johnson on the piano:

And for your pure listening pleasure, a 30-song compilation of Lady Day’s “top songs.”

Both women’s lives were cut short, but their influence reaches far beyond their years on this earth, and they continue to make a powerful impact on music in America.