Filmmaker Stevenson Palfi was wise enough to let his subjects speak for themselves. In 1982, he borrowed a casual statement from Allen Toussaint to serve as the title of Piano Players Rarely Ever Play Together, the 76-minute documentary in which Toussaint, Tuts Washington and Professor Longhair did just that. In a later, unfinished project built around Toussaint, Palfi took a similar tack, challenging everyone from Paul McCartney to French Quarter tourists to name the author of well-known Toussaint songs like "Java," "Lipstick Traces" and "Fortune Teller." The blank looks and bad guesses his queries drew set up the title of that project, Songwriter: Unknown.
Some time before dawn on Dec. 14 in his Banks Street home, Palfi took his own life. Friends say that the masters of his many films are safe, housed in Jones Hall at Tulane University. The first floor of his house, however, was destroyed by more than 5 feet of floodwater. He was 52.
"I think it was just one more thing on top of years of struggle," said Tad Jones, a friend who visited Palfi in November at his home, which was being repaired.
A Chicago native, Palfi graduated from Clark University with a B.A. in philosophy, then fell in love with New Orleans after traveling here to work on a film about Emanuel Sayles (This Cat Can Play Anything, 1978). As executive director of the New Orleans Video Access Center from 1975-1979, he created a community media resource that served as a national model. Though most widely known for his music documentaries, which also include Setting the Record Straight (1989, profiling Papa John Creach), Palfi's interests were diverse. Don't Start Me Talking (1986) centers on John O'Neal's realization of his storyteller Junebug Jabbo Jones character onstage. The docudrama A Thorn in the Side of Indifference (1976) won two awards from the Press Club of New Orleans, beating out better-funded projects -- a fact of which Palfi was proud.
Other awards included honors and grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, The Rockefeller Foundation, The Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the National Black Programming Consortium. A short homage to Ernie K-Doe was also unfinished at his death.
In New Orleans, Palfi is survived by his daughter, Nell, 20, and his former wife, Polly. A memorial is planned in March.