Allison Miner: A Community Activist and Archivist Legacy

“She was the conscience of the festival,” one longtime friend said of Allison Miner, the New Orleans Jazz Fest and Jazz & Heritage Foundation co-founder who established both the Festival’s Music Heritage Stage and the Foundation’s Archive. Miner, who died of multiple myeloma at age 46, was a music supporter who held and extolled a moral responsibility to Louisiana’s music and cultural community. She dedicated her too-brief life to fulfilling it: as a manager and booking agent, to get artists fairly paid; and as an archivist and historian, to present, document and safeguard their stories for future generations.

Allison Miner was born in Baltimore on September 23, 1949, and spent her childhood in Daytona Beach, Florida, where as a teenager she got her first music-business experience singing backup in a band called the Allman Joys with two Seabreeze High classmates, Duane and Gregg Allman.  Later, in a short film portrait called Reverence, Miner told documentarian Amy Nesbitt that around that time, she saw a TV interview with Danny Barker, during which he talked about the transcendence of jazz funerals in New Orleans. It sparked her imagination, and at 17 – with only $100 in her pocket – she decided to see for herself.

Miner began working administrative and research jobs at Tulane University, first in research, then in fine arts, and finally under founding curator Dick Allen in the school’s William Ransom Hogan Jazz Archive, where her innate fascination with history flourished. It was from there that she launched a career that would (among other things) wind up educating tens of thousands of music fans and committing hundreds of stories to the historical record.

“She was a pioneer in Louisiana’s cultural community,” said Rachel Lyons, who became the Jazz & Heritage Foundation’s Archivist in 2000. “She did not wait for permission. She used her keen skills to subvert, and at times, confront power structures to achieve her goals of fairness and equity. At the cusp of the women’s rights movement, at a time when women were finding their voice, she was outspoken. And while there is historical gravity to her work, the ultimate core of it is a celebration of people from all walks of life.”

George Wein, co-founder of the already well-established Newport Jazz and Newport Folk festivals, had been approached about presenting a similar event in New Orleans. He called his friend Allan Jaffe at Preservation Hall to see if he knew anyone young, hip, energetic and on the ground in New Orleans who could help. Jaffe sent him to Dick Allen, Allen sent him to Allison, and when they met up at Café du Monde to start making plans, Allison brought her then-boyfriend Quint Davis with her. 

Allison had connected with Quint, a Tulane student, when both were still in their teens, living in apartments whose balconies were so close they could hear each other’s records from across the way – blues, country, R&B, gospel – and recognized a kindred spirit. 

Allison was smart, skilled, and acutely attuned to Louisiana music and cultural history. She made herself indispensable to Jazz Fest by finding and booking talent, keeping the accounts, putting out the program guide, coordinating volunteers, handling public relations and even, for the first festival in Beauregard (now Congo) Square, running out to the store to buy fabric to dress the stages. When there was no money to put musicians up in hotels, she and Quint Davis hosted them at their own apartment, giving players like Robert Pete Williams and Bukka White foldout beds in the living room and Miner’s after-hours gourmet cooking, and getting back music, stories, and friendship. “Those were my favorite moments of the festival,” she told Amy Nesbitt in Reverence. “I wanted to get to know these incredible human beings.”

Miner left Jazz Fest after the 1975 event for a number of reasons. It was difficult to be valued and to maintain her position in the rapidly growing event that seemed to be drifting from its original mission. She also found more value in working directly with artists, like Professor Longhair – her first management client, who she helped ferret out languishing royalty payments and launch a successful second acts– as well as Bo Dollis, Monk Boudreaux, Eddie Bo, and brothers Willie and Earl Turbinton. 

When she moved to Cleveland, following her husband, Andy Kaslow’s job opportunities, she threw herself into the music scene there, hosting a Cajun and zydeco radio show on Case Western Reserve’s WRUW, directing the National Folk Festival in Cuyahoga Valley, managing blues musician Robert Lockwood, serving on the board of the Northeast Ohio Jazz Society and working as director of development at the Cleveland Music School Settlement. 

Still, she never missed a Jazz Fest in New Orleans, whether as a performing artist’s manager, a fan, or in at least one case, singing with the Womens’ All-Star Jazz Ensemble in 1982.

Besides her independent artist management and tour travel, Miner racked up a host of music-related gigs in the late seventies and early eighties, including documentary and festival-coordinating work for the Smithsonian Institution, working at the Newport Folk Festival and coordinating the Folk Life Pavilion at the 1984 World’s Fair in New Orleans. She directed the Contemporary Arts Center’s Jazz Factory program and was honored with the Mayor’s Arts Award by the Arts Council of New Orleans. 

Miner moved back to New Orleans in 1985, worked briefly at WWOZ-FM, and signed more management clients, like the emerging Rebirth Brass Band. Now in her 40s, she was no longer the wide-eyed fan sitting at her idols’ feet, but an experienced and savvy businessperson who could guide a band through the industry’s vagaries and influence their young lives. She also managed jazz guitarist and inventor Steve Masakowski, who called her New Orleans music’s “unsung hero” at her posthumous tribute in 1996. Speaking on the festival’s Music Heritage Stage, he noted that she’d sacrificed what could have been her own singing career for the sake of others.

That stage, and the Jazz & Heritage Archive where the recorded conversations are kept, is Allison Miner’s lasting legacy at Jazz Fest. She’d been passionate about hearing performers’ stories since those early festival days, when she would sit up nights talking with her musician houseguests. In 1988, the Music Heritage Stage was made official, with a full slate of substantial interviews scheduled every day, to complement the performances and add depth and context to the shows by revealing the stories – and the human beings – behind them. Now, over 1,000 of interviews are stored at the Foundation Archive that Miner built: a priceless repository that also includes thousands of artifacts from the Festival’s history, from posters to decor and crafts. In 2001, five years after her death, the stage was officially rechristened the Allison Miner Music Heritage Stage.

“Allison wanted those stories,” remembered her close friend, Mary Len Costa. “I mean, knowing the musicians, knowing their families, knowing why they sang, why they performed… What did their children contribute to it, and their families? She loved to go and visit and be in their homes, and take notes, and share recipes.”

In her early twenties when she started documenting Allison Miner on film, Amy Nesbitt was also inspired by watching how deeply her subject and mentor built and nourished the diverse network of people in her life. “It was a great opportunity to experience the different cultural threads of how someone that reaches out and is enmeshed in different communities could make their own lives so much richer,” She would watch Miner introduce musicians, Jazz Fest coworkers and neighbors in the aisle of the supermarket as they intersected in her life, if only in passing or by chance. “She connected those dots across many different communities in a way that was almost like weaving a tapestry,” said Nesbitt.

Miner fought multiple myeloma for over two years, continuing to work for musicians even through chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant. She had no health insurance, and her community did its best to rally around her; the last time she sang on stage was at a January 1995 benefit for her own medical expenses at the House of Blues, featuring The Rebirth Brass Band, the Wild Magnolias, Earl and Willie Turbinton, the Radiators, and host John Sinclair, who wrote the song “Thank You, Pretty Baby,” in her memory. She died on December 23, 1995. 

📷: Professor Longhair and Alison Miner at Jazz Fest 1971 photographed by John Messina, courtesy of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation Archive.