When Condoleezza Rice popped up in Cairo a few years ago to lecture the pharaohs that she and the other neocons were going to bring democracy to the Middle East, I had to laugh. It was redolent of the U.S. promising, a century earlier, to “make the world safe for democracy.” More distantly, I was reminded of the “enlightened self-interest” pronouncements of the colonial centuries. I was in Yemen and Aden in 1964 when the Brits were withdrawing none-too-gracefully from the last vestiges of their empire “east of Suez.” Reading the sad news of today’s Yemen, I am checking my files for photographs I took that fall in the company of my colleague, the New York Times’ Dana Adams Schmidt.
Chinese laborer, Yemen 1964: the Americans, the Soviets, and the Chinese raced to win hearts and minds in a road building competition while the Egyptians and Saudis sponsored a proxy war of factions that included the use of napalm
After flying by Egyptian military plane from Cairo to Sanaa, we slept for a few days in a mud brick skyscraper. I sampled “ghat” (the local mild narcotic), and we interviewed Yemen’s Egypt-friendly President and other local officials. We traveled north to the medieval town of Saada, close to a civil war then raging between the Royalists (backed by royal Saudi Arabia) and the Republicans (backed by Nasser’s Egypt). Sound familiar today? In the nearby town of Taiz we interviewed an American foreign aid official who explained that the U.S. and the Russians were competing for influence in the country by building major roads, sending in Caterpillars from Peoria and asphalt from some Soviet province; even the Chinese were already in that game, shipping in laborers with picks and shovels. We also interviewed a British official who knew far more about the tribes and sub-tribes than the Americans ever would, because the Brits had been there so long and taken a deeper interest in the native culture.
Next came the toughest road journey of my life. In a vintage Land Rover we bumped and slid over hundreds of miles of nearly trackless dessert, south toward Aden, past some of the most destitute, disease-ridden villages in the world, stopping a few of times in this region then called “South Arabia” to overnight with jaunty British troops and cheerful colonial administrators, enabling Dana to fill up his notebook with more quotes and me to take more pictures. Aden was a depressing, dangerous place in the throes of a Marxist sub-revolution; a cafe we had sat in an hour earlier was hit by a terrorist bomb. Most interesting (and quaint, now): we visited polling stations where British colonial officials, as prelude to their withdrawal from this final outpost of empire, were staging elections: fair, square, and meaningless.
All this was a long way from palm-fronded LA where I had grown up. But I shipped the uncensored shoot to New York by air freight (with the requisite bribe to the Beirut Pan Am agent). That was the start of my career as a photojournalist based in Lebanon. Eventually I got most of the filmstrips and slides back, but that was half a century ago, and I’m still looking for more of them to scan. I now see that even at that early stage (I had only taught myself photography 3 years earlier), I was more of a sucker for humanity than for the hard violence needed to sell news to a civilized society then preoccupied with race riots and Vietnam.
all photographs © William Carter 1965
What do we mean by “tone?” The word has precise meanings in music, photography, literature and other forms of art. More broadly, tone signifies the attitudes and intentions and feelings behind our literal expressions. This is basic to human communication: babies — even dogs — respond to a mother’s tone of voice long before they literally understand her words.
The generation who created jazz — and spawned Satchmo — well understood this primacy of tone as a universal human communicator. Cornetist Joe “King” Oliver, Louis’ adored mentor, marshaled an arsenal of mutes to tug at our hearts with his blues-based entreaties. Long before blowing a horn, Louis, a semi-orphan steeped in New Orleans vernacular sounds, sang in church pews and sidewalk quartets.
The evolution of Armstrong — his gravelly voice, his commanding trumpet, the public showman and the private persona — is recounted in a number of books, including excellent ones by Thomas Brothers. He was available and himself for anyone who wanted to speak with him: sharing his kindness and humor, his generosity of spirit, and — usually off camera — his all-too-human moments of weariness or (less often) sadness or anger. As once, when reedman Sidney Bechet, standing next to Louis in a festival, tried to outshine Armstrong by loudly playing the melody, causing Louis to inform him: “Ain’t but one lead horn in this band.” And another time, when Satchmo issued a rare public outburst at authorities trying to prevent a black child from enrolling in an all-white school.
Once in the late 1950s, when our friend, the bassist “Squire” Girsback, was on the road as a member the Louis Armstrong All Stars, Squire invited us to his home on the San Francisco Peninsula to enjoy red beans and rice and meet the great man.
Louis was sitting on the floor in a back bedroom with his pants legs rolled up and a big plate of the beloved New Orleans dish in his lap. He was glad to meet Squire’s friends but looked slightly sheepish at first because he was hiding from a road manager one of whose jobs was to prevent Louis, who was afflicted with stomach problems, from eating the wrong foods, including such good ole spicy n’owlins fare.
I was not yet a photographer, but would soon become one, and would meet Armstrong one more time — in 1962, at Rutgers University — and photograph him there. The picture on this page was never printed until 2014, 52 years later. A print of it is going to the unique Louis Armstrong archive in Queens, New York, and another will be donated to Stanford University, whose Archive of Recorded Sound holds important jazz collections. These include those of the San Francisco Traditional Jazz Foundation, the original Monterey Jazz Festival tapes, and the over 400 Jim Cullum radio shows which Stanford has been streaming free worldwide, 24 hours a day.
Squire, in semi-retirement, sometimes regaled us with stories of those two years with Louis — the highlight of the bass man’s life. Constantly playing one night concerts in huge auditoriums on the road, the All Stars used a set routine, like most successful touring shows. Squire told us the players mostly played the same notes, in the same places, with the same crowd-pleasing antics, every night. With some exceptions — especially Satch. Now and then, Louis would seemingly receive some message from outer space and blow — or sing — a flurry of notes Squire never heard before or since. The band just kept the same routine going, but Squire would answer these flourishes with a special flurry of his own, which caused “Pops” — who heard everything happening in his band at all times — to turn and give his bass man a big wink. Squire carried those winks in his heart until the day he died.
Professionalism in any field means producing, or reproducing, a reliable product. Careful preparation, good chops and perfect execution. Big bucks in the top echelon of the entertainment industry is no different in this respect from bands remaining stable, and stable enough to get invited back every year to established festivals.
But is this middlebrow predictability not fundamentally in conflict with a premise of jazz, namely spontaneity? Many musicians will tell you that some of the great moments in jazz happen out of the limelight, in dim bars or backroom settings allowing for creative chemistry — happy accidents. Which means leaving open the possibility for bands and players to depart from expected routines, even at the cost of the occasional wrong chord or creative “mistake.” Dimly lit Bay Area joints like Pier 23 and Café Borrone and Nick’s and Berkeley’s old Monkey Inn are and were the seedbed for such creativity. As were, in the whole history of jazz, a precious few record labels, and leaders whose DNA understands not only reliability but freshness.
Louis’ crowd-pleasing was the opposite of a circus routine. It flowed directly from his heart in communication with other hearts — from an understanding, in his personal DNA, which was inseparable from the DNA of New Orleans jazz, that this music is about a kind of inner and outer openness in which spontaneity is key.
northern Iraq 1965
photographs and text © William Carter
northern Iraq 1965
photographs and text © William Carter