The Joyful Art of Jazz Photography

The Joyful Art of Jazz Photography
Jim Merod
24 June 2002

Ugliness, discovered or invented, has often been the camera’s essential, sometimes desperate domain. The human condition is suffused with grim images. To be human is to see what we would prefer not to see. No one escapes the scourge of unsightly things . . . war’s victims, urban decay, nature’s ravages and, recently, the devastation of two great and populated towers in New York, the horror of their carnage permanently burned upon imagination.

Images routinely suggest more than they show. The camera’s calm awareness of strife, grief, horror, bloodshed, and deformity outstrips its own technical capacities. In short, the lens “sees” more than it captures. Vision, what can be seen, is not only physical. It is a cognitive and sometimes spiritual activity defined by imagination’s reach. What the camera shows is frozen; what it implies is ever in motion, unscripted texts (not merely visual) available for relentless interpretation.

The camera, of course, illuminates previously unseen nooks and corners. The universe seems smaller because of that. And yet the world seems fuller, more cluttered with obstacles and possibilities, too. What it means to be human may be plotted in terms of knowledge savored, suffered, witnessed and passed into history’s sober narrative.

Photography has also served a less astonishing, more compelling function. It captures forms of beauty, a startling and sometimes seductive complexity that would remain forever unnoticed without the camera’s revealing, innocent eye. What guilt may be attached to photographs inheres in the uses to which they are put. On their own, photographs are guiltless. Their blink of instant revelation is as guiltless as a child’s gaze.

Photography has served scientific and commercial uses, as well as the incidental, whimsical and narcissistic uses of personal gratification. We have snap shots of loved ones and family elders, of ourselves as we once were and dozens of other essential items of trivia, because the camera gives us power to seize a moment’s fractured truth. We know extraordinary details of nature and its hidden symmetries (and irregularities) because the camera’s eye zooms into micrological spaces, freezes the blur of speeding movements, and sees what no unaided eye could glimpse. Those probing, improbable powers leave their mark for science and lyric speculation. The history of photography is a stunning archive.

At its most powerful, photos show us what the world once was, how our ancestors looked, and how talented people (armed with an evolving, primarily black and white visual technology) shaped resistant, somewhat stubborn primitive artistic media into a complex art with flexible uses. The history of photography is not a graveyard of frozen images but an archive littered with mostly unnamed energies, unnamable purposes.

The history of jazz photography is a subset of that larger visual archive. Its energies and purposes are explicit. Amid the broodings of a sober universe, a great deal of joy can be found there. Jazz and blues may be deeply connected to struggle and pain, but their photographic legacy is as affirmative as their recorded legacy.

In truth, the history of jazz in images constructs a unique and remarkable kingdom that cuts across the larger history of photography with a dignity all its own. Its heroes are legendary musicians: Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Mary Lou Williams, Ben Webster, Sarah Vaughan, Lester Young, Dinah Washington, Dizzy Gillespie, Carmen MacRae, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Chet Baker, Julie London, Art Tatum, Melba Liston, Count Basie, Ma Rainey, Frank Sinatra, June Christy, Jimmy Rushing, Anita O’Day, Gerry Mulligan, Etta Jones, John Coltrane, Shirley Horn, Stan Getz, Irene Kral, Thelonious Monk, Marian McPartland, Bud Powell, Astrud Gilberto, Bill Evans, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Oscar Peterson, Blossom Dearie, Gil Evans, Toshiko Akioshi, Johnny Hartman, Gerri Allen, Sonny Rollins, Chris Connor, Chris Potter, Kenny Barron, Kenny Werner, Regina Carter, Maria Schneider, Nick Brignola, Tom Harrell … the list is long and honorable and still growing.

Hundreds of musicians, collectively influencing twentieth century culture, have been honored by men and women, cameras ready, ears alert, crouched patiently stageside in search of the telling moment of musical expression. Off stage antics and the banter of collegial give and take between jazz giants are held by photos that comment, posthumously with pictorial cheer, on the living energy of those whose musical contributions will endure.

The honor conferred by this nearly century-long history of jazz photography moves in several directions at once. Its initial masters are now held in their rightful place, part of a representational pantheon that assures historical and artistic longevity: Roy DeCarava, Herman Leonard, William Claxton, Milt Hinton, Carol Friedman, Lee Tanner, Ray Avery, Michael Oletta, Joe Wilder, and others less known as well as those now developing new ways of approaching familiar visual topics. But the essential fact of the enterprise rests with the vast body of images memorializing a powerful body of music — substantiating the glow of jazz royalty and the afterlife of their vivid energy. These photos tell a story that needs to be told and retold for generations to come.

Such scattered images and the artists captured there collect into a visionary company of sometimes haunting, often beguiling, and frequently outrageous accomplishments. Jazz is the story of outrageous, unexpected accomplishments. Photos that augment this legacy frequently document minutiae alongside grandeur. More than the irrepressible Kilroy scrawled his name on those grainy contact sheets. Real men and women still live there, just as they reside (more enchanting yet) in the ferocious, delicate sounds they have left behind . . . and that is because a photo is ever new. We gaze at a well-made image caught at Newport or Monterey, for example, and Dizzy springs back to life, puckish and gleeful. The Duke is smiling, holding court, or digging in at the piano. Sarah still exudes an aura of casual artistic perfection. All is well. The courtly artist so captured in the blink of a moment’s joy lives beyond the moment and the life itself.

This self-evident royalty of so many relaxed and focused master musicians is confirmed by photographs that reveal, or accomplish, the beatification of their expected, nonetheless unique, charisma. How poor we would be — as fans or historians of jazz — if we had no images of Billy Strayhorn’s childlike smile or Art Tatum’s imperial bearing sitting at an upright piano. Think of what it would mean for anyone now learning the intricacies of Thelonious Monk’s music not to have those few magnificent images of Monk that adorn album covers and pictorial anthologies.

Honor, therefore, first and most, great musicians and those almost great, as well. Honor, too, those who worked so caringly to document the world of song and of improvisational energy. Alongside musicians who became visual subjects, recognition slowly has come to those whose work now establishes the pictorial history of a profound, once undervalued, musical art. By extension, honor should be granted (also) to those who participated at the margins, on the sidelines, and in the background of jazz — composers, arrangers, lyricists, recording engineers, writers, managers, club owners, disc jockeys, publicists, agents, and most of all the millions of jazz fans who discovered this magical art early on and, now, keep it alive by patronage and attention. Many of those in the wings have become a permanent part of the history of a brilliant, fleeting art.1

Perhaps (therefore) the camera, which thrives by arresting what essentially is never “there” to be seen in the first place, and jazz (as a subject of interest) are perfectly mated. The history of jazz coincides with the emergence of the phonograph and the recording technology devoted to it. Although the history of photography is a half-century older than the history of jazz, the development of the camera and improvements in film and printing techniques (as well as refinements in framing, lighting, and capturing subjects) parallel developments in the documentation of music.

Jazz is a deeply improvisational art. Its recorded legacy has amassed material that could never be written out in advance or after the fact. The capture of fleeting visual images by the camera, and of fleeting solo and ensemble work by audio recordings, preserve a universe of information that, for jazz aficionados and historians, is infinitely more than mere information. It is a joyful universe beyond language: a world that is our own physical existence rolled up inside dreams that no single person could ever name precisely.

The camera, for its part, has seen what no unaided eye could ever notice. The microphone has heard what no aural memory can retain. Between them, photographs and recordings circumscribe the great jazz legacy that, belatedly, now appears in the retro-mode of commercial nostalgia. That seemingly Golden Age, preserved in its twilight as newly digitized images and recordings (analog photos and sounds “remastered”), was discovered to be a distant but genuine cultural oasis as the century it defined came sauntering to a close, oblivious to its dignity and beauty, eager for its significant commercial exploitation.

In some measure, then, the history of jazz photography comments upon the history of photography in its entirety. This might be construed for any sustained imagistic treatment of a single body of subject matter, as well. Since, however, the history of jazz photography traverses two-thirds of the time span that photography has lived, the vital commentary between them awaits fuller inspection with lessons that will no doubt cut both ways. More daunting yet, the history of photography provides the aesthetic and visual framework by which those who have captured jazz and its people can be fully comprehended. One comes to better understand Herman Leonard’s starkly beautiful if somewhat placeless jazz world, for instance, by knowing the visual environments of his artistic predecessors.

This central fact ought to clear by now. Regardless of the influence of those who literally created compositional and structural vocabularies for photography, during its formative decades, upon later photographers working on location in clubs or concert halls (outside the comfort of a studio) as jazz pursued its long adventure as a spontaneous and mobile performative art, the history of jazz photography is a record of sight and insight vividly etched on the larger canvas of photography itself.

All photos stand on their own as a self-enclosed territory and yet each photo refers beyond itself to a world with human depth and history. Thus, we “read” the photos that make jazz an amassing visual archive in terms of the very same questions that open up the vaster archive of photography as a whole. For instance, how does a two-dimensional image “convey” emotion? That may seem self-evident. It is something of a puzzle for biologists exploring childhood face recognition as well as for aesthetic theoreticians. What is the relation between the physical exterior of a subject and his or her inner (artistic) landscape? There may be no answer to such a teasing question, but it prompts a nearly endless possibility for speculation. The unambiguous truth of photography is that it holds the banality of the imagistic surface and the elusive “depth” of human meanings with equal reverence.

The classic photographic masters who defined the visual vocabularies of their art may not be familiar to those who know and love Armstrong, Monk, and Fitzgerald. But an excursion through the world of jazz photography inevitably summons the inaugural visual exercises of artists such as Eugene Atget, Cartier-Bresson, Edward Steichen, Andre Kertesz, Man Ray, Edward Weston, Maholy-Nagy, Walker Evans, Diane Arbus, Robert Frank, Alfred Steiglitz, Richard Avedon, and even (anomalously) Ansel Adams. In this regard, the photographic careers of Herman Leonard and Roy DeCarava must be mentioned as two widely-acclaimed photographers in the world of jazz who have influenced a larger photographic universe, and whose essential body of work resides outside and all around the enormous number of powerful photos they have taken of jazz subjects.2

On this turf, nonetheless, the musicians should come first. If you have inspiration enough, their music may be heard in the background of each master photo, an undertow of revelry in every crevice. Gifted photographers who create a pictorial archive of this lyrical art find their vision affirmed by the unsummarizable worth of the music itself. Thus, the larger history of the camera’s evolving nomenclature frames the smaller visual history of jazz, an art of celebration linked (at odds, but in companionship) with mere documentary sobriety. Both jazz and photography depend upon improvisational freedom. And that relationship suggests, each and every time, their art’s collaborative and unabandoned cheer.

1An instance of this “incidental memorialization” is accrued by jazz historian Stanley Dance who can be found in literally dozens of photographs taken of Duke Ellington. Dance was closely affiliated with Ellington’s band and was a frequent associate. In the ’30s and ’40s, he found himself often included, or added himself, as a somewhat towering figure at the back of groups with Ellington at the center; or as a partner to a smaller enclave photographed in Ellington’s magesterial company. Dance, of course, is a significant figure on his own as an historian of the Duke Ellington and Count Basie bands.

2DeCarava’s enormous number of shots of Billie Holiday have not as yet been edited into a volume, which they deserve, but his early work with poet Langston Hughes, The Sweet Flypaper of Life, clearly indicates his interest in subjects well beyond the scope of jazz. Leonard’s work with fashion photography, Playboy magazine, and commercial artistic models provided the financial freedom for him to pursue his art in a jazz setting.

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