David Kunian is the new music curator at the Louisiana State Museum, and before he can start planning the New Orleans Jazz Museum, he's got to find out what he's got.
David Kunian is trying to find out what he’s got. Kunian is now the music curator for the Louisiana State Museum, and he’s rummaging through the back rooms of the Old U.S. Mint to try to get a handle on exactly what is in the museum’s archives. Some of it’s obvious. One row of shelves house kick drums, one with “Kid Ory and his Creole Dixieland Band” on the front. Another row holds an array of horns, and nothing about them is terribly prepossessing to the untrained eye, and probably not to the trained one either. It’s not like the greats left a radiating green glow when they blow a clarinet, or journeymen bestowed a gray cloud of desperation on the cornets and saxes they blew their middling notes through. Armstrong didn’t leave amethyst fingerprints and jade lip prints on any horn he touched.
Still, Kunian becomes animated when he shows me a dark-rimmed snare drum that has little to show for itself beyond its plainness. He tells me the drum belonged to Papa Jack Laine—“He was the father of white jazz in New Orleans,” Kunian says—and that it might be drum that jazz was first played on. I’m not a person who feels the auras of the legends who came before in their instruments, homes or haunts, so my personal excitement over such artifacts is muted. Kunian’s enthusiasm for them is professionally tempered, but he’s on the spectrum. That snare might have made history, so it gets him momentarily—incrementally—closer to that moment when something world-changing happened.
That kind of musical appreciation has made Kunian a good writer about New Orleans music over the years. I’ve taken work from him during my stops at Gambit, OffBeat, and The Oxford American, and it has made him a good radio documentarian. He has done audio documentaries on James Booker, Earl King, James Black, Chris Kenner and more, and he DJs at WWOZ. He has always written with a fan’s passion and respect for his subjects, and that affection made him want to tell musicians’ stories right, even when those stories weren’t flattering.
As music curator, he’s in a position to tell those stories in different ways.
The collection is organized, or organized-ish. Photos are in filing cabinets. Sheet music is in a different set of filing cabinets. Records are in yet another. Boxes abound, but not in a ramshackle, Hoarders way. One awaiting attention is marked “SeaSaint,” and it contains two-inch tape reels that have music by singers Tommy Ridgley and Ernie K-Doe—Kunian thinks. That’s what’s on the waterlogged tape boxes that were rescued from Allen Toussaint's SeaSaint Studio after Hurricane Katrina, but he hasn’t listened to them yet to be sure. “Any time you do that, you have to digitize it the first time you listen to it in case it breaks,” he says.
Other reels of tape in the archive came from the New Orleans Jazz Club--traditional jazz aficianados who did what they could to preserve the music, including recording shows of traditional jazz bands. In 2007 and 2008, the museum got a grant for Kunian to digitize some of those tapes, which is when he got a chance to hear some of them. “They’re good recordings for those days,” he says. The Jazz Club went a long way to helping establish the archives when it donated its collection of more than 60,000 items to the state for a jazz museum. Because its concern was traditional jazz, the collection has definite limits in terms of genre and time frame. Little that happened after the 1950s is represented well, and Kunian plans to address that, not only by filling in the missing years but by making sure that the present day is represented. “I saw James Singleton the other day and told him, This is my new job. Don’t throw anything away,” Kunian recalls. He told Washboard Chaz not to dispose of any old washboards, and that’s just a start. “The collection kind of cuts off after the revival era. It has Al Hirt stuff, but does it have any AFO stuff? No.”
The instrument room is sorted by type of instrument, but in it and other areas of the archive, acquisitions have been a bit random. Some journeymen are well represented, while many meaningful figures are only lightly present. “I will be finding out what is in here for a long time,” he says. “It is vast. But every so often I’ll put out a box and will run into Webb Pierce memorabilia including a great postcard of his guitar-shaped pool. And also in this box was wood from the house that W.C. Handy grew up in in Florence, Alabama.”
Neither is exactly what he’s looking for right now as he starts to think about his first show, but it’s nice to know where they are for the future. Since the collection is open to researchers, he also needs to get it to a place where others who might find meaning in Webb Pierce postcards or shards of the Handy house can access them. This building is where these things live now, so no matter how ephemeral some seem, they need to be properly and hospitably stored.
Kunian has an immediate goal of getting a New Orleans Jazz Museum open on the U.S. Mint’s second floor in the fall of 2017. His bigger picture goal is to try to wrap his head and get a sense of what stories it does and doesn’t tell. A previous occupant of the office left behind a folder titled, “Ideas That Didn’t Work.” What will and won’t work isn’t Kunian’s question yet. Right now, he’s trying to make peace with the enormity of the task. “Some days you realize that you can’t get it all, and you work on one specific thing to clear out space,” he says. “Put this away. Read through these files about how they put the collection together.”
He has listened to some of the records, but only if a second copy exists. As with the tapes, he doesn’t want to risk damaging objects that are at this point rare. Not only is it the job, but Kunian is a preservation kind of guy for both scholarly and mystical mojo reasons. He regularly follows Mardi Gras Indians Uptown on Fat Tuesday and ends up a Second and Dryades. There’s a plaque a few blocks away to mark King Oliver’s house, and a few blocks from there were the homes of Buddy Bolden and Kid Ory.
“You sit on Second and Dryades and realize, I’m partying here, and people have been partying here for at least 100 years,” Kunian says.