Take just a few steps into the new exhibit on the life and times of Pete Fountain and you can’t help but smile.
Just like during his life, every image you see of the late, legendary jazz clarinetist features his smiling face.
It’s also hard not smile when you see a life-sized wax figure of the New Orleans icon, one that was up until last year housed in the Musee Conti Wax Museum. Though the museum is closed, the wax figure is on loan from the new owner and right at home.
The exhibit at the Old U.S. Mint also features one of Fountain’s clarinets, several album covers, Christmas cards from him and his wife Beverly (who, along with family members, beamed at last week's opening reception). It also showcases pieces of Mardi Gras memorabilia (including doubloons and Pete bobble heads) from his Half-Fast Walking Club, a fixture on Carnival for more than 50 years.
Half-fast is naturally in the title of the exhibit - Pete Fountain: A Life Half-Fast – which opened last week and is on display at the Old U.S. Mint as part of the Louisiana State Museum’s New Orleans Jazz Museum. It’s fitting that the small room honoring Fountain is situated right across the hall from a major exhibit on Louis Armstrong’s life. The two music figures are among the city’s most well-known and beloved native sons and the museum gives a great opportunity for natives or newcomers to learn about both.
Fountain, who died Aug. 6, 2016, was known the world over not just as a clarinet virtuoso but as a New Orleans character. As visitors enter the exhibit, a display board points out Fountain was “the quintessential New Orleanian,” one who took his music seriously but never took himself too seriously.
Photos in the exhibit chronicle his Carnival experiences with the Half-Fast Walking Club (“Half-Fast but never half-stepping” one display explains). One wall of the exhibit features several Fountain album covers and the 1996 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival poster featuring Fountain and Rodrigue’s familiar blue dog.
Fountain, a New Orleans native, rose to the top of the jazz world by playing with the Dukes of Dixieland and fellow New Orleans jazz master Al Hirt. He gained even more national exposure as a regular on The Lawrence Welk Show and later The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Returning home in the 1960s, Fountain opened his own club on Bourbon Street and later at the Hilton Riverside Hotel. He performed there (and across the country) until retiring in 2014. His career included performing for several U.S. presidents and Pope John Paul II during his visit to New Orleans in 1987.
The exhibit is a reminder that a major fundraising campaign is underway to develop even more exhibits for The New Orleans Jazz Museum, in collaboration with the state museum, the Louisiana Museum Foundation and other educational and program partners. The new exhibition will draw on the vast jazz history collection already owned by the Louisiana State Museum, including some of the pieces in the Pete Fountain exhibit.
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