THE IMPORTANCE OF DECENCY AND TRUST
For a long time I have had a beginning of a blog about jazz bassist Milt Hinton sitting on my computer. Many times when I would Google a famous jazz artist, Milt’s photos would pop up. I knew that he was a legendary jazz musician who had taken legendary photos of legendary jazz musicians. I also knew that he was not a professional photographer, he was just a trusted friend with a camera. I did think that he would be an interesting guy to write about. What I didn’t know was how important Milt was in chronicling the history of jazz and how must his kindness played a part. His natural goodness permeated his life. His upbeat attitude drove away his demons and defined his life.
This blog has taken many turns.
Milt Hinton’s abject decency changed what started out as an homage to Milt Hinton’s talent.
Here is my first start writing about Milt Hinton.
I admire pro photographers who can stage a photograph that will leave us with an accurate and sometimes beautiful image of their subject, but I do have a special prejudice for snapshooters like Milt, people who have earned the trust of their subjects.
Rayse Biggs Photo John Osler
At least one night a week I will spend some time standing in the corners of the Dirty Dog Jazz Café with a camera in my hand. I don’t want to become a nuisance, so I retreat to the back of the room and try to be invisible. I stay put and avoid colliding with the staff carrying loaded trays. Being considerate and safe are not the best formulas to get great jazz photos.
Great photographers get us close to and often inside their subjects.
We are fortunate that throughout its history jazz has been chronicled by writers and photographers who have had an intimate understanding of what goes on inside the heads of our most influential jazz artists, musicians and the chroniclers.
Some writers and photographers have the gift to gain trust, get access, recognize what they are seeing and know enough to edit the results. One photographer who had this gift was Milt Hinton. He also happened to be one of our greatest bass players….
I think that a lot of my attraction to jazz came from photos that made me aware that jazz musicians live more freely and more intensely than anyone has a right to. I know this because I have seen so many b/w pictures of them sitting alone lost in their thoughts or in someone else’s music. I have seen pics of them in groups engulfed in more friendship than an average guy will ever experience. Thanks to a handful of photographers who gained the trust of jazz artists, we all have images inside our heads of the characters that created the music we love, images that are honest and fair, ones that you only get with still photography, frozen moments that we can each take our time to study, consider and absorb
Then I realized that everything that I wanted to say, Milt had already said in his photos and writing, and he said it better.
Here is what he said:
“I know you can get the program on videotape and I’ve seen it a dozen times. But photos are different. You can study them. You can analyze the expressions on people’s faces, and to my way of thinking, you can see what they’re really all about. That’s one thing which always attracted me to photography. Milt Hinton
“I got my first camera in 1935. It was a 35 mm Argus C3, and it was a present for my twenty-fifth birthday. I had the Argus with me when I started on the road with Cab in 1936. Although I took a few posed shots, I was never much for taking formal pictures. Everybody was shooting the band onstage in uniform, and if you went to a professional photographer for your own publicity shot, he’d ask you to smile and act like you were playing your instrument. I’ve never wanted to get those kinds of photos because I don’t see musicians that way.” Milt Hinton
Milt Hinton was deeply aware of his own good fortune and debt to all those who took a chance. Like so many jazz artists, He was devoted to helping younger musicians carry on the jazz tradition. He taught jazz courses at Hunter College and Baruch College in the 1970’s and 80’s. In 1980 he established the Milton J. Hinton Scholarship Fund for young bassists.
“Music involves more than just playing an instrument. It’s really about cohesiveness and sharing. All my life I’ve felt obliged to teach anyone who would listen. I’ve always believed you don’t truly know something yourself until you can take it from your mind and put it in someone else’s. I also know the only way we continue to live on this earth is by giving our talents to the younger generation.” Milt Hinton
I was pretty young when I realized that music involves more than just playing an instrument. It’s really about cohesiveness and sharing. Milt Hinton
Milt Hinton was a giant in jazz and storytelling. Milt Hinton told his story with recordings, photos and words. He saw things as a child that could have disabled his curiosity. He rose above the assaults of racism and economic inequities that he and many of his fellow musicians suffered. He saw the goodness in others and wanted us to see it too, so he carried his camera wherever he went.
“I was only interested in seeing us the way we see ourselves,”
“Photography is the closest a man can come to having a child.”
Milt Hinton came to the point. He wrote, played jazz and shot pictures with a sureness that only someone who has lived the story can bring. I realized that everything that I am writing about I have learned from someone. Someone who was trusted to record Milt’s recollections of those who in turn had trusted him. This process takes a truckload of trust. Milt could be trusted and I found that I could trust a friend of Milt’s, David G Berger, who helped Milt preserve the words and photographs that I will be using.
HERE ARE SOME FACTS ABOUT THE MASTER MUSICIAN WHO TOOK PICTURES
“When I first started out in the ’30s, I took pictures so I could show my family and friends that I’d really been to all those places and knew all those people. Several years later, the guys I was traveling with became my friends and I shot things we all experienced so we could share them later.” Milt Hinton
MILT HINTON WAS FOREMOST A LIKABLE GUY
When I mentioned Milt’s name in the Dirty Dog Jazz Café’s green room, bassist Paul Keller offered that he was one of the nicest guys in the business. When a guy is liked his buddies will give him a nickname. His nicknames included “Sporty” from his years in Chicago, “Fump” from his time on the road with Cab Calloway, and for his easygoing nature and his unflappable ability to keep a steady rhythm he earned the nickname, “The Judge”.
He was loved, admired and honored. Milt received eight honorary doctorates as well as countless prestigious national and international awards. He and and his wife Mona were together for 61 years. He was a good guy.
Milt never said
that he was a good guy because he was too humble.
MILT HINTON WAS A REALLY GOOD MUSICIAN
Here is what his New York Times obituary recalled him as:
“One of the most recorded musicians of all times and the dean of American bass players.”Milt Hinton had plenty to say in his thousands of recordings, in his own words and in 60,000 black and white candid photographs of fellow musicians.
Here is something Milt understood:
“A person has to have lived to play great jazz.. Unless you’ve lived, what could you say on your instrument?”
Milt Hinton lived a long, rich and fulfilling life. It had its challenges which Milt overcame with uncommon grace.
He was born in Vicksburg, Miss., on June 23, 1910. His childhood in Vicksburg was challenging, he encountered extreme poverty and extreme racism at a time when lynching was common. One of Milt’s clearest memories of his childhood was when he accidentally came upon a lynching. Like many jazz musicians who suffer oppression, Milt lived his life with a dignity above and beyond the confines of the oppressive segregation he encountered throughout his life..
His family moved to Chicago and his musical education began at 9 when he was given a violin and violin lessons, he hoped to play for silent films in movie houses but movies stopped being silent... Then in high school he was given a tuba and a chance to be in the marching band. He switched to bass horn, then tuba, cello and eventually taught himself bass, which led to gigs in local clubs as a freelance musician in Chicago. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Milt worked with such artists as Art Tatum, Jabbo Smith, Zutty Singleton and Fate Marable.
“The word ‘base’ means support, foundation. If you put up a building, the foundation must be steady and strong. I must identify the chord for everyone, and only after that can I play the other notes. You learn to have a lot of humility. You must be content in the background, knowing you’re holding the whole thing together.” Milt Hinton
An Argus camera was a gift for his 15th birthday and from that day on he was seldom without a camera.
Out of necessity, Milt learned the technique known as slap bass, in which the strings are pulled back at high tension and released suddenly. Slapping the bass allowed one to be heard in dancehalls that didn’t have amplification
”Studying the violin gave me the ability to play melody on the bass, and it also gave me a great deal of dexterity,” ”All the guys I heard used their arms to slap, but I developed a way to slap with my wrists.” Milt Hinton
His slap bass style gained him entre to the greatest musicians in both jazz and pop. The long list of artists he worked with begins with Cab Calloway.
It was 1936 and Cab Calloway was one of the biggest stars in jazz. He was on his way back to New York from Hollywood. His bassist abruptly left and Calloway hired young Milt Hinton just a few hours before the band’s train was to leave for Chicago. Milt remembers that Calloway told him he planned to ”find him a good bass player” once the band got to New York. Instead, Mr. Hinton played in Cab Calloway’s band for 15 years. During his time with Calloway, Milt was featured on dozens of recordings with Benny Goodman, Lionel Hampton, Coleman Hawkins and Billie Holiday, among others.
Milt’s career spanned decades. He collaborated with hundreds of musicians from Louis to Paul McCartney and always took time to capture some snapshots of the 20th century’s most influential jazz figures.
‘‘I wanted to show them the way they are,” he said. ”Everyone sees musicians up on a stage, but I wanted to show them asleep in a bus or in a railroad station or listening intently to a playback.” Milt Hinton
His collection of personal photos includes more than 60,000 negatives, a treasure trove that David G Berger and his wife, Holly Maxson, have lovingly maintained since Hinton’s death. .
David G. Berger, Milt Hinton and Holly Maxson © 1988 Photo courtesy The Milton J. Hinton Photographic Collection
MILT HINTON AND DAVID BERGER
I have found the best way to tell Milt Hinton’s story is to let Milt tell it. The only way to get permission to get Milt’s words and photos is to contact his trusted friend, David G Berger in NYC.
Between. 1935 and 1999 Milt took thousands of photographs, approximately 60,000 of which now comprise the Milton J. Hinton Photographic Collection, co-directed by David G. Berger and his wife Holly Maxson. The Collection includes 35mm black and white negatives and color transparencies, reference and exhibition-quality prints, and photographs given to and collected by Milt Hinton throughout his life. Beginning in the early 1960s, Milt and David worked together to organize the photographs and identify the subjects of the photos.
David Berger and Milt Hinton were two peas in a pod. They both loved life and jazz.
Here is David’s story of their meeting:
In 1956, David G. Berger was a Queens, N.Y., 14 year old determined to become a bass player. David first called Arvell Shaw, Louis Armstrong’s bass player, and asked about possibly studying under him. He referred Berger instead to a jazz bassist who was kicking around the New York studio scene at the time.
The man was Milt Hinton, and every Saturday for several months, Berger took the subway, then the bus, to where Hinton was living. He would hang out, sometimes until 10 or 11 at night. David recalls “In those days, it was commonplace for legends like jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie or pianist “Count” Basie to drop by Hinton’s place”. He still vividly remembers a particular day when Count Basie who lived around the corner from the Hintons stopped over, and Milt began playing a silent movie.
“Basie sat down at the piano and just started playing an accompaniment,” David said. “That’s just the kind of thing you never forget.”
David G Berger and Milt Hinton remained pals, swapping stories and grins and enjoying each others company until Milt passed away. David told me most of what I learned of Milt’s generosity and kindness.
On visits to the Hinton’s basement studio in Queens, young David met legendary artists including Ben Webster, the Hintons’ longtime houseguest. Milt Hinton took his wide-eyed student along to record and club dates.
Those visits forged a lifelong friendship between Berger and Hinton, who could swap stories on just about everyone who was anyone in popular music. When Paul McCartney gave him a fancy new bass guitar to him by, Milt said, “… it had all kinds of knobs on it, it could boil coffee and everything.”
Milt Hinton and David G Berger kept watching out for each other, that is what friendship is about. We are the beneficiaries. These two guardians have given us a great gift.
Thanks to David G Berger and The Milton J Hinton Photographic Collection for all your help.
NPR host Liane Hansen talks to author David G Berger about the photography of the late jazz bassist Milt Hinton. Berger has co-authored the book Playing the Changes: Milt Hinton’s Life in Stories and Photographs.
Milt Hinton lived one of the fullest lives anyone could imagine.
He had some kind of secret juice that people were drawn to. He was always included and no one told him to put his camera away. From what David G Berger has told me Milt Hinton always found time for others. He was a serially decent man.
Next week I will take a look at his photography.
NEXT WEEK PART TWO
MILT HINTON: THE MASTER PHOTOGRAPHER WHO PLAYED JAZZ
COMING THIS WEEK TO THE DIRTY DOG
February 12 – 15
THE DETROIT JAZZ FESTIVAL ALLSTARS
Detroit Jazz Fest All-Stars Generations Band Panama Homecoming featuring Chris Collins, Chuck Newsome, Wesley Reynoso, Marion Hayden, and Nate Winn. (*Sean Dobbins- 2/14 and Tariq Gardner- 2/15)
Last month, the Detroit Jazz Festival Foundation All-Star Generations band once again expanded its international outreach with performances and workshops at the world-renowned Panama Jazz Festival. Since 2013, the Detroit Jazz Festival Foundation has been engaged in an ongoing cultural exchange with Panama. Artists and students from both countries have collaborated on workshops, exchange programs and International performances. This week we welcome