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By Benjamin Cawthra


The Montréal Review, December 2011


 "Blue Notes in Black and White" by Benjamin Cawthra (University of Chicago Press, 2011)


"This first in-depth history of jazz photography provides the reader with a three-dimensional view of its fascinating subject, illuminating the music, the media, and the makers-the foreground and the background."

-Dan Morgenstern, author of Living with Jazz


The music came first, then the photographs. But what images they are: a sculptural Dexter Gordon bathed in cigarette smoke. Miles Davis, with the piercing eyes and fashion sense. Duke Ellington's air of elegance. John Coltrane's alternating passion and serenity. Blue Notes in Black and White: Photography and Jazz would have to reproduce these images and investigate how great jazz photographs came to be and how they reached the public. But what did they mean? For that sort of question, it is sometimes best to consult a higher authority.

"Instead of the swift and imperceptible flowing of time," Ralph Ellison's nameless narrator confides in his great novel, invisibility makes "you aware of its nodes, those points where time stands still or from which it leaps head. And you slip into the breaks and look around." In jazz, breaks may be expressed as "stop-time." The rhythm section pauses while a soloist makes a brief flourish. Jazz photographers are time-stoppers, seizing moments just as their subjects do in the midst of performance. Blue Notes in Black and White is the story of how photography made jazz musicians visible in a time of social turmoil and change in America.

Ellison functions as both muse and chorus. Classically trained as a trumpeter and a lover of jazz, he understood what was happening after hours at clubs like Minton's Playhouse during the war years. In these dark rooms bebop developed. Not long after, fascinated by photography and tutored by no less than Gordon Parks, Ellison turned himself into a fine portraitist even as he worked to complete Invisible Man. Astonishing his friends with his darkroom prowess, Ellison actually made some extra money shooting jacket portraits for publishers while he wrote his fictional character underground. But there the darkness ends. Though he lives a hermit-like existence, Ellison's Invisible Man revels in the blazing light in which he bathes himself in his renegade battle with the electric company. "Light confirms my reality," he says.

Making that which is not seen visible is at the heart of Blue Notes in Black and White. It tells the story of photographers who took on the task of making tangible, publishable images out of something intangible and ethereal that they loved: music. They photographed musicians in one dark room and made their prints in another so that jazz, struggling on and off for its commercial survival, would see the light of day in magazines, on record covers, in the culture at large. In another sense, a more fraught, Ellisonian one, the story of jazz photography is part of a larger narrative of emergence. African Americans, the people Duke Ellington in 1941 called "the injection, the shot in the arm that has kept America and its forgotten principles alive" have the most at stake in the story. Photography and jazz grew up together in 1930s America. Life, Look, and the Farm Security Administration envisioned the world in striking new ways and big band jazz redefined youth culture. But in those days before album cover photographs, the most popular images of black men in the land may have been on lynching postcards.

By contrast, the look that Miles Davis gives photographer Dennis Stock's lens for his 1958 album Milestones is so direct, so matter-of-fact and unflinching, that he might have been lynched for it in another time, place, and circumstance. In an essay published the same year in Esquire, Ellison wrote that Davis's bebop generation had been "intensely concerned that their identity as Negroes placed no restriction upon the music they played or the manner in which they used their talent." Indeed, Davis modeled the idea of "no restrictions." The following year, his Kind of Blue recording operated free of traditional chord structures. But did his dustup with two of New York's finest outside Birdland that summer result from his escort of a white woman to a car during a break or simply from his refusal to move along from the crowded club entrance? His name on the marquee, his gesture to his photograph-these did not save him from a detective's stick. News photographs showed him bloodied but defiant, a new and bracing jazz image. Unapologetic for his success, Davis was no invisible man. No duping the electric company for him. He liked to note that he had a healthy investment in Con Edison.

Herb Snitzer, Louis Armstrong, June, 1960. Photograph © Herb Snitzer

So the actors in Blue Notes in Black and White are scrappy, mostly freelance photographers (and the editors and record executives who employ them) but also their subjects: Davis, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane-the musicians who have musical, commercial, and political hustles of their own to pursue as the country undergoes wrenching and necessary change. In his refreshing and idiosyncratic tour of photography's past, British writer Geoff Dyer notes that "this question of whether a photograph is defined by the person who took it or by what it is of is absolutely central to all discussion of the medium's history." Like many of its forbears in sorting through that history, Blue Notes also argues for that symbiosis.

These relationships have their share of intrigue. During World War II, Gjon Mili's series of jazz-based photo essays provided a vessel for Life publisher Henry Luce to celebrate American freedom and democracy and strike a blow against fascism, though the actors in Mili's staged jam session seem like double agents. Mili's subjects Ellington, Billie Holiday, and Mary Lou Williams welcomed the (overdue) publicity and Mili photographed them recording V-discs for the troops, but each one took risks in the battle for civil rights and social justice at home, working for the second half of the Double V agenda. William Gottlieb's classic photographs of the late 1940s 52nd Street scene gain power when linked to the efforts of his collaborator, Dizzy Gillespie, to make bebop visible-that is, commercially viable. Gillespie's hip fashion sense and willing photographic complicity augmented Gottlieb's determination to plant a detonating bebop device in Down Beat, the leading jazz magazine then hostile to bop and, it seemed, any music deemed too black.

Even so, one of the great lessons of jazz photographic history is that though the images of Gottlieb, Herman Leonard, William Claxton, and other masters of the subgenre are now considered treasures documenting what Ellison called a "Golden Age/Time Past," in their own time they often found an extremely limited audience-especially if the subjects were African American. Gottlieb's iconic Billie Holiday, head thrown back in full cry, languished in a shoebox for more than thirty years. Leonard gave his prints away-the price of admission to clubs, they were apprentice work of a young man just getting his start in New York's midcentury art world. Finally properly published beginning in the 1980s, it is now difficult to imagine the history of jazz without them. Visually speaking, the concept of jazz genius as primarily African American is a retrospective one. This racial history of the jazz image makes Francis Wolff's Blue Note Records photographs all the more remarkable, but even this is tempered when we consider the small scale of his company's operations and distribution compared to the major labels.

In the three decades from the thirties to the sixties, on the journey from invisibility to black power, jazz lived in dark rooms and occasionally open spaces. By the mid-1960s, acoustic jazz had lost its long battle for popularity. It was art music after all. The representative jazz images of the era may perhaps be found in the obscure and the unpublished: those in Roy DeCarava's Harlem-based, artful, and fugitive The Sound I Saw or in W. Eugene Smith's anguished and obsessive photographs from the private "jazz loft," unseen at the time but for an introspective Thelonious Monk album cover. But the beauty and mystery of jazz photographs, so closely allied to the music itself, retain the power to fascinate even as they distort our view of jazz's racial history and make smoky basement clubs owned by mobsters look alluring and glamorous. In the dark rooms where jazz has been heard, there has always been a light, just enough for a camera to help tell the tale.


Benjamin Cawthra is associate professor of history and associate director of the Center for Oral and Public History at California State University, Fullerton.

"Blue Notes in Black and White" cover image: Dennis Stock, Miles Davis, 1957. © Dennis Stock/Magnum Photos.


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