When the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival first began in 1969, it was radical. Here in the South, still reeling from the Civil Rights movement and race integration, the festivals’ founders — Quint Davis, George Wein, and Allison Miner — created a safe space for New Orleanians to come together, to hear each others’ music and to party — together. Eve Abrams brings us this profile of Allison Miner, a titan in New Orleans music, and the only person with a Jazz Fest stage named for her.
For many people, like me, Allison Miner was a name attached to the stage inside the grandstand where musicians talk more than play. But then I started meeting people like Grant Morris, who became close with Miner when she managed Professor Longhair for most of the 1980’s. Morris calls Allison, "one of the most important people in music history, in the history of people who aren’t musicians."
The first time Grant interviewed a musician on the stage Allison invented, Music and Heritage, he introduced himself as the interviewer. Allison was furious. Morris says, "I got off the stage and she looked at me, and I will tell you something: If you are on the wrong side of Allison, you knew all about it — she looked at me and said: 'Don’t you ever do that again. Don’t you ever introduce yourself.'”
For Allison, it was the musicians who should be at the forefront, always, and this stage was the place to hear their stories, which she thought were just as essential as hearing them perform.
Allison managed the Wild Magnolias, Rebirth Brass Band, Steve Masakowsi, and most infamously, Professor Longhair. She was part nurturing mother, part hard-nosed business woman, and there was no line between the musician and herself. They were like family.
Mary Len Costa, one of Allison’s dearest friends, says food was a big part of her relationships. She collected musicians’ recipes in a file cabinet and notebooks and hosted them around her large, rectangular wooden table with the leaves extended to fit whoever was there.
"She felt that around the table, that communion, is what needed to be shared," says Costa. "That’s where you really get to know a person. Sitting, sharing their food with them. Their hardships, family. That’s where you learn what really made them sing."
Allison herself was a startling, beautiful singer. Growing up in Daytona, Florida, she sang back up for her friends Duane and Gregg Allman, who went on to become the Allman Brothers. She moved to New Orleans when she was 17, after hearing Danny Barker on TV say New Orleans was a city that cries when you’re born and celebrates when you die.
New Orleans was Allison’s great love. She did move away twice: for Andy Kaslow, her husband. For several years, he was Professor Longhair’s band leader. "I told Alison I need to leave in New Orleans," says Kaslow. "She was heartsick about that. She did not want to leave. She loved New Orleans. She loved it maybe more than me."
Allison couldn’t stay away from New Orleans for long, and when she returned, she took up her mantle as a crusader for musicians — seeing they were paid fairly, treated well, and received their publishing royalties. She wouldn’t let anyone exploit them.
"Dogmatic is the nicest way to put it," says Costa.
Festival co-founder Quint Davis puts it this way: "She’d get up in your face and let you know what she thought. She'd shake her fist. She wasn’t one to mince words. She didn’t suffer fools, and she didn’t suffer foolishness. Maybe because she didn’t have time, as it turned out, to be superfluous about anything."
Allison Miner died at age 46 of bone marrow cancer. By that time, she’d started the Jazz and Heritage Archive, helped launch WWOZ, and ensured that the Jazz Festival would be a non-profit and part of a foundation. After she died, the Music and Heritage stage was named in her honor. It’s still the only Jazz Festival stage named for someone.
"Now when you go to Jazz Fest you see the stage is called the Alison Miner Music Heritage stage, and hanging at the back is a giant, full length portrait of Alison with a microphone in her hand," says Morris. "She would have absolutely been horrified to see that. She would have been mortified."
Maybe Grant is right. Maybe Allison wouldn’t have wanted her name to represent the stage whose entire purpose was to showcase musicians. But the people who knew her know it’s perfect. Allison believed that the soul of the music was the soul of the musician. Hers is a spirit well worth remembering by name.
This news content made possible with support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.