Among zoot suits and conk hair treatments, curlers and fur coats, stone-faced housewives and red-lipped women, a country on the brink of a world war and a people awaiting civil freedom, stands Billie Holiday on a smoky stage serene eyed and resilient. Her hands are clutched atop one another at her abdomen; she is calling on spirits from another time and positioning them in her melancholy cadence. A light hits her chest and casts a shadow on the ground, emboldening her presence upon the capricious stage. The band behind her plays like hypnotized counterparts to an evocation much larger than themselves as they methodically blow on their horns and pluck their strings.
This snapshot of times past, taken by Charles Peterson in 1939 as Billie Holiday recorded “Strange Fruit” for Commodore Records in New York City, is just one of the 150 photographs dressing the pages of “The Jazz Image: Masters of Jazz Photography,” released in November 2006 and published by Harry N. Abrams, Inc. with an introduction by Village Voice columnist and jazz-enthusiast Nat Hentoff and a preface and photo descriptions by jazz photographer Lee Tanner. The 175-page book documents the evolution of Jazz from 1935-1992 with images of musicians ranging from Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington to John Coltrane and Miles Davis.
As technology became more accommodating to the dark ambiance of jazz clubs with the birth of photoflash and smaller more portable cameras like the Leica, photographers were able to infiltrate this new artistic movement; untainted by censorship and slowly jugulating the preordained factions of American society. The black-and-white photos characterize each page of “The Jazz Image” with a different story found in the eyes of the musicians, in the way they handle their instruments or within the contortions on their faces. Like jazz itself, every picture mouths a unique truth noting its fingerprint in time but escaping any precise definition of its theme.
The improvisations of jazz have mesmerized audiences since its inception in American culture. The art form is uncompromising and evokes strong feelings of like or dislike. Fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants jam sessions can be both confusing and frustrating to amateur listeners who find it difficult to qualify the structure to any specificity. Tanner correlates this type of extemporization to photography. Linking the two creative forms he writes in the book's preface: “jazz and photography are art forms whose only similarity may be that of improvisation has developed a magnificent synergism.”
Whether or not such a synergism was coincidental fate or a manifestation of a bottled society about to pop its cork is debatable. What is clear, however, is that the artistic marriage of music and photography quenched the thirst of the American public, which was parched for something real in an age of costumed political economic and social insecurity. Such undercurrents not only personified the confusion in its frenetic rhythm and beat, but drew a sincere face that candidly stared back at its audience. Its witnesses became drunk from such candor for seven decades and counting.
Photographers like Herman Leonard, Bob Willoughby, Milt Hinton, Bill Claxton, Chuck Stewart, Don Hunstein, and Tad Hershorn act as intermediaries between the rational world of the living and the volatile invocation of world's past, present and future existing simultaneously in jazz. The lucid eye of the jazz photographer captures this whimsical existence on stage and offers an infinite ticket into the jazz lounges and night clubs. “The Jazz Image” creates a secret trap door into the avant-garde scene, and places the reader on a clandestine mission where Sara Vaughn and Dexter Gordon are pulling the strings and singing the harmonies.
More than half a century after Thelonious Monk pressed the black and white piano keys with his fingers and Charlie Parker possessed the alto sax with his breath, onlookers can not only experience the notes in their ears but see the musicians playing before their eyes; acting as voyeurs to an age of innovation and social change . Hentoff notes the importance of this type of visual expression in jazz music. In the introduction he explains, “Recordings are not enough to provide a full understanding of a jazz musicians work. There is an added physical and emotional impact in seeing the music play.”
And “play” they do, in the black and white photos of Ella Fitzgerald codling her microphone stand while Dizzy Gillespie awards her with an approving glance, taken by Willaim Gottieb at a 52 nd street club in New York City in 1948 to Wallace Roney saluting Miles Davis with a smile in Hermal Leonard's photograph at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1991. The photo-documentation of “The Jazz Image” arms those aware enough to notice its wisdom with a deeper understanding and appreciation of the art form. Jazz was not about musicians with ADHD ignoring melody and disrespecting the “rules,” just like photography was equally not about instantly gratified youths spontaneously capturing moments with little thought and lacking the artistic drive of a painter. Both were, instead, about marking the societal peaks and valleys enveloping them and adding a physical and emotional context to such trends. In flipping through the pages of “The Jazz Image,” one finds a living archive of the two coinciding art forms, which hopefully will not go unnoticed in history, and of which invokes a lasting cultural significance in American society.