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Stevenson J. Palfi, 53; Filmmaker Documented New Orleans' Music

December 29, 2005|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Stevenson J. Palfi, a New Orleans musical documentarian best known for "Piano Players Rarely Ever Play Together," a 1982 look at three generations of Big Easy piano greats, has died. He was 53.

Palfi died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound Dec. 14 at home, his family told the Times-Picayune of New Orleans. Palfi, who left a suicide note and a will, had been severely depressed after Hurricane Katrina's floodwaters destroyed years of files, photographs and other possessions at his home in the Mid-City area.

"His death was a tragedy for everybody," Jan Ramsey, editor and publisher of OffBeat Magazine, a New Orleans music publication, told The Times on Wednesday. "Stevenson was a valuable asset to the music community here in terms of preserving the culture."

"Piano Players Rarely Ever Play Together" focused on New Orleans keyboard luminaries Isidore "Tuts" Washington, Henry Roeland "Professor Longhair" Byrd and Allen Toussaint. Toussaint's songwriting hits include "Working in the Coal Mine," "Mother-in-Law" and "Southern Nights."

The documentary, which was frequently shown on PBS and is still in distribution, provided insight into the way the three players influenced one another's styles and showed the only time they ever rehearsed together for a joint concert.

Byrd died two days before the scheduled performance, and his jazz funeral, along with the Washington-Toussaint tribute concert, became part of the documentary.

"Piano Players Rarely Play Together," Times-Picayune movie writer David Baron said, was "a last-chance document of one key thread in the Big Easy's inimitable R&B tradition."

Ramsey said, "In terms of a preservation piece, it's remarkable, because there is very little [previous] footage of Professor Longhair or Tuts Washington, and when you get all three of them together in a studio, it's unprecedented."

Once described by his city's newspaper as "the Big Easy's big encyclopedia of music," Palfi also documented other Crescent City musicians, such as singer Ernie K-Doe and Preservation Hall banjoist Manny Sayles.

Palfi co-produced "Played in the USA," a 13-part series of video and film documentaries about American music for the Learning Channel. The 1991 series included "Papa John Creach: Setting the Record Straight," Palfi's documentary on the onetime fiddler with Jefferson Airplane and Jefferson Starship.

As a filmmaker, Palfi once described himself as a slow, meticulous worker. At the time of his death, he was nearing completion on "Songwriter, Unknown," a feature-length documentary on Toussaint. Funding for the project had been aided by a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1993.

"My friend Stevenson Palfi's life's work was immortalizing others, and, in so doing, he has immortalized himself," Toussaint told the Times-Picayune this week. "His work will outlast all of us."

Palfi's love of music began while he was growing up in Chicago, where his earliest memories included listening constantly to Harry Belafonte calypso records and recordings of speeches by 1950s Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson.

"I listened to Stevenson because my parents named me after him," he told The Times in 1991. "I'm not sure his speeches were especially musical, though there was a cadence to them."

Palfi started using video as an aid while student-teaching.

He later taught documentary production, although he had yet to make one himself. But after buying a camera and getting a ride with a friend to Mardi Gras during spring break, he found not only his calling in life, but also a new home.

His survivors include a daughter, Nell Palfi; his father, Alfred M. Palfi; and a sister, Cynthia Penfold.

A tribute to the filmmaker will be presented at OffBeat's Best of the Beat Awards ceremony Jan. 21 at the New Orleans House of Blues.

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