Show tells the story of historical photo of La. musicians

A picture’s worth a thousand words

Having shadowed New Orleans music icon Dr. John for years, filmmaker and Baton Rouge native Lawrence Cumbo has hundreds of hours of footage from concerts, interviews, family reunions and tours.

Slices of this material, along with highlights of Dr. John’s 2012 concert at the Opera House in Shepherdstown, W. Va., which Cumbo bought three years ago, will make up the first installment of the new music series “Rocking the Opera House” Friday on Smithsonian Channel. Also part of the program will be the story behind the photo, “A Great Day in New Orleans,” a previously unpublished picture also shot by Cumbo.

“Dr. John asked me to make the photo when I was on tour with him,” Cumbo said Tuesday. “He really loved that photo that Art Kane did, ‘A Great Day in Harlem, 1957.’”

That famous photograph celebrated the jazz greats of that region, and Dr. John wanted to re-create the same with his New Orleans musical cohorts.

“I had a month to find everybody,” Cumbo said of the 63 Louisiana artists of all genres he assembled in Armstrong Park on Aug. 4, 1998, the anniversary of Louis Armstrong’s birth.

Baton Rouge’s John Fred Gourrier, New Orleans greats Allen Toussaint, Ernie K. Doe, Monk Boudreaux — a who’s who of the state’s most well-known musicmakers posed on the front porch of Satchmo’s former home on that hot August day. Some waved at Cumbo’s camera, others stood arm in arm, and one artist, Frankie Parker, aka Mr. Green, smiled from his wheelchair.

“I think that’s a hysterical (historical) pitcher (picture) because a lot of dem cats ain’t here with us no more,” Dr. John, in his inimitable fashion, says in the program, as he looks over a copy of the photo hanging backstage at the Opera House. That particular copy has the signatures of all 63 superimposed around the photo.

“As soon as I developed the photo, every artist received a 16 x 20 (inches) copy of the photograph,” Cumbo explained.

“Later I ran into George Porter Jr. (also in the photo) and when I told him I was the one who took the photo, George told me he had lost his in Katrina. So, this many years later, I’ve reached out to some of the other musicians to discover they’ve all lost their prints, most to Katrina.”

This discovery motivated the former National Geographic Channel filmmaker to have a graphic designer create a poster of the photo with the signatures so the artists can have their prized image back again. Going a step further, copies of the poster will be for sale to the general public through agreatdayinneworleans.com as a fundraiser for the New Orleans Musicians Clinic & Assistance Foundation, also founded in 1998, and dedicated to providing health care for some 2,500 Crescent City musicians.

Cumbo said he feels like he’s come full circle with all his Dr. John materal, dating back to his first Louisana-shot film, 1996’s “Annie and Eddie,” which the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer narrated. “Annie and Eddie” followed swamp-tour guide Annie Miller and her husband. Dr. John would later voice “Arkansas Anaconda,” Cumbo’s first documentary for National Geographic. Later working on the staff of Geographic, Cumbo and his family moved from Prairieville to Washington, D.C., and later the small, cosmopolitan Shepherdstown, where he fell in love with the old Opera House. He, his wife and two daughters would eventually move to New Zealand for yet another job opportunity, but kept the house in Shepherdstown, returning to the States a few years ago to find that the Opera House, constructed in 1909, was up for sale. Cumbo had to have it, and turned the small but acoustically superior building into a music venue.

“We realized early on that you need to take risks on big bands to draw in people from D.C. and Frederick (Md.) and surrounding areas,” he said.

In addition to Dr. John, the Opera House has hosted New Orleans-based groups the Dirty Dozen Brass Band and Ivan Neville and Dumpstaphunk.

“They do very well.”

Veteran bluegrass picker Ralph Stanley played the Opera House for his 85th birthday.

“He picked up his banjo in the middle of the set and played like four songs straight,” Cumbo said. “The place went nuts. He said this is one of the best-sounding rooms he’s ever played in.”