JAZZ MUSICIANS AND JAZZ PHOTOGRAPHERS
We know the history of jazz from scratchy recordings, publicity notices, gritty pieces of motion picture film, notes from critics and fans and most notably soundless B&W photos.
Fortunately photographers have always been attracted to anything new and anything that is counter cultural. Many jazz photographers have become as famous as the artists that they photographed. Many people took pictures for publicity and news stories, but the ones we remember are the images of the jazz artists being themselves and interacting with other musicians. These candid snaps have given us some truths and a human face to our national music, jazz. We can learn a lot about jazz and life from the process. The greatest jazz photographers reflected their subjects. They approached their task with passion. friendship, improvisation and spontaneity.
MY INTRODUCTION TO PHOTOGRAPHY
My dad had a 35mm camera with a 50mm lens. He was an illustrator and he made b&w prints in his basement darkroom that he used for reference in his illustrations. My introduction to photography was the odor of the chemicals that wafted out through the closed door of that room. The prints were somewhat organized in piles on shelves in his studio. He sometimes would let me watch him print. It was magic. As he stirred the blank paper in the tray filled with stinky chemicals an image would appear. Those were special shared moments with my father. My father had a good eye and an artist’s ability to edit. He never took a color slide and took few unnecessary shots. Photography wasn’t used very much in advertising then, but there were plenty of brilliant photojournalist covering important stories in Life magazine and in our newspapers.
TWO PHOTOS BY ROBERT FRANK
I have a short list of photos that I wish I had taken. Most of the photographers that I have admired were like my dad, They had a purpose and a sense of art. They didn’t have to wait to see the edited print to know that the photo that they just took was going to be pretty good. It would be purposeful and a thing of art. They recognized the importance of what was in front of them as it was happening. Sometimes when this happened they were able to put their cameras in the one place it should have been, snapped the shutter at the perfect moment, and then they had the good sense to single out and crop that near perfect shot for printing. We all recognize the power and the beauty of a good photo . These photos have universal appeal, will affect our lives and go on our walls and in books, magazines and museums.
Then there are the trillions of photos shot today with our phones and digital cameras. All the images seemed important when they were taken. Life is full of moments that deserve remembering, and sometimes a photo helps.
A snapshot is a piece of information or short description that gives anunderstanding of a situation at a particular time.
I am a snapshooter. I have a habit of shooting a lot of images hoping that one of them will tell the whole story. Carrying a camera can be a burden. I live in fear that I won’t have the camera in front of my eye when the perfect moment happens. I watch as others joyfully gather their subjects in front of them, ask them to look at a phone and voila they have an image to share. They then go and enjoy their time with friends, while I am in the corner of the room waiting for art to happen. Are all of us labeled as photographers cursed to miss out on real life because we can’t put our cameras back in the bag.
I think that it is important that there are photographers out there who will help us have a better understanding of a subject and the times. What separates the great ones from the rest of us who own a camera?
What makes a great photograph?
I would like to use this photo as an example of what makes a photograph special.
When you enter the Dirty Dog Jazz Café and look toward the right end of the wall behind the band stand you will see a black and white photograph of Eubie Blake smoking a cigarette.
Years ago I bought this print from Johnny Daniels in his New Orleans studio. I later brought this framed print of Eubie in to the club for the proprietor Gretchen Valade to see. “How much?”, she said, and the photo had a new home. What did Gretchen see in this image, and what had I seen? The photo doesn’t have any reference to music or New Orleans. It is a photo of a guy in a chair sitting on a his porch. I knew that it was a jazz musician because I had met Eubie, and Gretchen knew it was a jazz photo because Eubie’s all knowing attitude in the picture just reeks of jazz.
I think that all the elements of a great photograph are in this picture. It is simple, it has only one message and it gives us the essence of a man who has seen a lot of life and he is OK with all of it. Johnny Daniels was a good friend of Eubie Blake and was Eubie’s best man at one of his weddings. His affection for Eubie the man was just as great as his awe of Eubie’s accomplishments. The photo has the love of the man embedded in it. Johnny Daniels was a great photographer because he cared so much for his subjects.
All of this is in the print on the wall of the Dirty Dog Jazz Café.
James Hubert “Eubie” Blake (1887–1983)
Eubie was an American composer, lyricist, and ragtime pianist. In 1921, he and his long-time collaborator Noble Sissle wrote Shuffle Along, one of the first Broadway musicals to be written and directed by African Americans. His songs included such hits as “Bandana Days”, “Charleston Rag”, “Love Will Find a Way”, “Memories of You” and “I’m Just Wild About Harry”. The musical Eubie! opened on Broadway in 1978, a revue featuring his music. The show was a hit at the Ambassador Theatre, where it ran for 439 performances.
Shortly after his show started, I met Eubie Blake at a rent party at Mike Montgomery’s house in Northwest Detroit. Eubie was in his 90s. It was about 3 AM on Saturday night when Bob Seely, a great Detroit stride piano player honored Eubie by playing three of his contemporary versions of Eubie’s song I’m Just Wild About Harry. Eubie kept the same knowing smile that is in Johnny Daniels photo throughout the tunes. After Bob finished he shyly noted that Bob never lost the beat, while old ragtime players seldom stayed on the beat. Everyone there knew they were in the presence of one mellow man .
BEHIND THAT SMILE WAS A MOST INTERESTING LIFE
Shortly before Mr. Blake’s 90th birthday, McCandlish Phillips, writing in The New York Times, described Eubie this way:
”Mr. Blake is still as robust as a rooster.
Even in his 90’s, his fingers still move over the keyboard with astonishing agility and accuracy. They were not only strong fingers, but also remarkably long and delicate – so long that he could span up to 12 keys or, roughly, 11 inches; the best most other pianists could do was 9 or 10 keys.
Eubie liked to remind people that his parents had been born slaves. ”I’m proud of my heritage,” he said. ”I want everyone to know that I came from slavery and went to the top of my profession.” His father, John Sumner Blake, a longshoreman had fought in the Union Army. His mother, Emily, a laundress, was an extremely religious woman. ”She had Jesus in her pocket,” her son was fond of saying. He was the youngest of 11 children
“At the age of 15, still wearing short pants, he surreptitiously got a job as a pianist in Aggie Sheldon’s sporting house – $3 for a seven-day week and tips.
After a neighbor, who recognized the boy’s playing style as she passed Aggie Sheldon’s house, reported his suspected activity to his mother, she sternly turned him over to his father for disciplining. His father, who made $9 a week, asked the boy how much he was paid.
”Three dollars a week,” he replied, ”but I get extras.” ”I took him upstairs to my room,” Mr. Blake later recalled. ”Under the carpet I had almost $100 stashed, because I was too young to spend it. My father didn’t say anything for a moment. ‘Well, son,’ he finally said, ‘I’ll have to talk to your mother.’ ”.
Eubie moved on to saloons and clubs. He also worked the medicine show circuit and was employed by a Quaker doctor. He played a Melodeon strapped to the back of the medicine wagon. In 1899, the year Scott Joplin’s ”Maple Leaf Rag” was published he composed his first piano rag, ”Charleston Rag. He hasn’t slowed down since.
Eubie remained a bright-eyed, ebullient performer his whole life. We know this because Johnny Daniels has shown us.
TIMES ARE CHANGING
Photography has changed. Times have changed. Today everyone with a smartphone is a photographer. It is estimated that roughly 80% or around 4 billion people of those smartphones have a built-in camera. Let’s say that they take 10 photos per day or 3,650 photos per year, per person. That adds up to more than 14 trillion photos annually (14,600,000,000,000).
Johnny Daniels had constraints that required careful decision making on the front-end of the photo-taking process: With only a couple dozen photos on a roll of film, he had to be deliberate about when and what to shoot. He snapped the shutter when the passion was there and only after he spent time observing his subject.
There will be many really terrible pictures living in phones and computers. That is OK, there is no harm done. Photography is personal and making it easy to capture our meaningful moments is a good thing
“If you want to be a better photographer, stand in front of more interesting stuff” – Jim Richardson
When we are the Dirty Dog Jazz Café and look at the photo of Eubie we will see all the satisfaction that comes with a fully lived life.
The power to create a good photograph is in all our hands now. We just have to find something interesting and remember to recharge our phone.
COMING TO THE DIRTY DOG THIS WEEK
November 6 – 7
T-Bone will bring his passion for jazz and its roots to the Dirty Dog. His many friends will be there to welcome him back to the Dirty Dog
November 8 – 9
Make your reservations early as Alexander has earned a loyal following eager to find out what he is up to. There will be music guaranteed to lift your spirits.