By William Carter

Photographer, Author, Jazz Musician

Jazz + Photography = Now (Part 1)

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Surprising similarities between two young art forms.

William Carter in Preservation Hall September 1973

William Carter, clarinet, at Preservation Hall, September 1973 with Kid Thomas, trumpet; Emanuel Paul, tenor saxophone; Emanuel Sayles, banjo; Charlie Hamilton, piano; Alonzo Stewart, drums; and Louis Nelson trombone. Photograph by Mona Mac Murray

In your lifetime, as in mine, both jazz and photography have gradually won acceptance as fine arts. Having been intimately involved with both, I see underlying similarities between these two “modern” forms.

The special energy of the fleeting moment is as crucial to photography as it is to jazz. Perhaps Zen painting or action painting should be included. But any jazzman,  photographer, or Zen master would add that preparing for that moment is crucial. Any advocate of the “cutting edge” wanting to tear down old establishment walls can proclaim the supremacy of the Now. Expressing that moment meaningfully — artistically — is something else.

The two upstart arts share another similarity: technology has been key to their histories.

Willie Humphrey Album Cover

Willie Humphrey album cover: photograph © William Carter 1974

After the invention of the camera in 1839, photography evolved rapidly. It continues to do so. From plates to films to sensors, its myriad processes and techniques have influenced, and been influenced by, history itself. From colonial times and the U.S. Civil War to today’s cell phone revolutions and satellite imagery, photography has been as intertwined with the history of science as with the historical events it was picturing.

Jazz first appeared in the 1890’s — roughly the same time as sound recording. It was invented in New Orleans as a medium of locally styled dancing, parading, and other social functions.  Not until it migrated to Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles — where the recording studios were — did “America’s classical music,” as it has since been called, take off. The first jazz recordings were made in 1917, and the first by black musicians in 1922. These sparked the Jazz Age, positioning musicians and listeners for the worldwide boom, with its myriad stylistic developments, that continue to unfold.

Absent sound recordings, jazz could never have developed as an art form. The highly personal sounds of Louis Armstrong or Bix Beiderbecke or Benny Goodman or Duke Ellington or Charlie Parker or Bill Evans or George Lewis or Miles Davis, or hundreds of others, would have been lost, other than in the fading memories of the relative few who would remember hearing them live. Unlike music whose essence is preserved in written manuscripts, this music of the moment required recording to filter into that cumulative memory we call civilization. Absent recordings, jazz’ own inner development would have been stunted: generations of younger players, having had far less access to the sounds that preceded them, would not have been able to power the medium forward down the many new tracks it has taken.

Guitar Slim Album Cover

Guitar Slim album cover: photograph © William Carter 1959

An interesting, if comparatively minor, factor in the development of both photography and jazz has been the direct dialog between them. From the earliest days, jazz bands have needed publicity photos of themselves and their prominent individual members. Creative photographers have often responded to the special, sometimes romantic-seeming conditions and atmosphere of the jazz scene. For me, having my feet in both worlds has often been rewarding, both personally and professionally.

Among my earliest paid photo assignments, around 1960, were shooting album covers for an obscure blues label (see above, right and below). In the following decade I began accumulating the pictures and interviews that would come together in my book on early-style New Orleans jazzmen, Preservation Hall  (W.W. Norton, 1991). But my first real job of any kind had been in 1955, at age 20, when I toured the U.S. as a clarinetist, performing nightly nationwide and recording with Turk Murphy’s Jazz Band out of San Francisco. I would play professionally and semi-professionally ever since, and would come to know countless wonderful musicians.

Here’s a track featuring me on clarinet playing Sidney Bechet’s “Blue Horizon.”

Magnolia Jazz 5 album cover

Magnolia Jazz 5 album cover, 1985. Author in lower left.

Numero uno, however, was the night I met and photographed the great Satchmo (below).

As I said, happy accidents happen everywhere, all the time. But creating them, recognizing and treasuring them, preserving and framing them — that’s a special preoccupation shared by photographers and jazzmen. And creating those moments? That’s the most arcane, edgy aspect — and the mysterious heart of both activities. In practical terms, you can only create the conditions and hope something great happens — and you don’t miss it. Trying too hard—too consciously setting up the picture, or over-arranging the music—is opposite of the process I’m talking about.

The night I met Louis, he just happened to be positioned that hundredth of a second on that gym stage at Cornell University, under those stage lights, in a way that would work on film as later processed (with some difficulty) in my darkroom, and much later translated onto my computer. I just happened to be there holding that camera with that lens and film, ready to celebrate that moment, partly because I so loved the expansive human with whom I had just chatted backstage in his dressing room. I just happened to cut a slice out of infinite time with that particular shutter speed, and just happened to cut a slice out of infinite space with the bright line viewfinder in that particular Leica.

And Louis?

Louis Armstrong at Cornell

Louis Armstrong at Cornell.

Click here for a larger version. 

Louis just happened to be doing one-night stands across the U.S. at an age, and in a degree of uncertain health, when many others would have long since hung up that horn. Nearly half a century earlier, he had just happened to walk into a studio to record a few sides including “West End Blues” (click below),

and happened to improvise a solo intro lasting less than half a minute which happened to  change the course of American music. That intro has since been imitated, repeated, re-interpreted, re-arranged thousands of times — but never with that same elemental, accidental-sounding force of its first moment.

Another of my early idols, photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, called his most influential book The Decisive Moment.

Which says it all.

Yemen: Then as Now? Part 4

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Transition to a still uncertain future
Photos and Text © William Carteryemen4-1Many Yemenis are short, and their donkeys more so 

yemen4-2Protecting himself from the sun with a vestige of British colonial times

 

yemen4-3The hot, humid valleys north of Sanaa are rich in agriculture — and malaria

 

yemen4-4Yemen’s indigenous architecture long contributed to its reputation as a quasi-mythical land

 

yemen4-5In 1963 the Brits still hung on

 

yemen4-6Late in the day a colonial officer reviews a dwindling number of troops

 

yemen4-7Street life in Aden survived longer than the politicians on the walls

 

yemen4-8Building for an uncertain future — then as now

 

Written by bywilliamcarter

June 5, 2015 at 12:00 pm

Yemen: Then As Now? Part 3

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Where there are children, there is hope

Photos and Text © William Carter

 

yemen3-1In 1964 we were told these were the first girls who ever went to school in Yemen; those who survived would now be nearly 60 years old

 

yemen3.2Building sites can also be fun

 

yemen3-2In traditional societies, gender-defined roles start early

 

yemen3-4Too old to be in the first school for girls?

 

yemen3-5Was this his first view of a camera viewing him?

 

Written by bywilliamcarter

May 22, 2015 at 12:00 pm

A Letter to H.E. Masoud Barzani, President of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq

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May 4, 2015

Mr. Masoud Barzani
President
Kurdish Regional Government
Erbil, Iraq
For delivery in Washington, D.C.

Dear President Barzani:

With great pleasure we welcome you to the United States.  I am so happy about the evident progress of the Kurdish people in their long struggle for their rights and autonomy, and their partnership with America.

Fifty years ago – in the spring of 1965 – I interviewed and photographed your esteemed father in Kurdistan.  I was traveling through the mountains with a group of pesh mergas under the command of Colonel Akrawi, on assignment from Life Magazine, which published my article and photographs.

I have never forgotten that experience. Mullah Mustafa Barzani asked me to help the Kurdish cause with the people of America, and I have tried to do that in my modest ways as a photographer and writer. Much time and many events have passed on the world stage, but in my heart I have never forgotten the wonderful hospitality and special character of the Kurds.

In the last two years I have published a series of blogs of these photos on https://bywilliamcarter.wordpress.com  I have corresponded with Kurds in the U.S. and in Kurdistan, who warmly invite me to travel to Erbil.  My wife and I must think realistically about this at age 80!

Perhaps a comprehensive pictorial book can be published celebrating the dynamic present and inspiring history of the Kurds on their long road to autonomy. As part of that story. my diaries and pictures of your father, the pesh mergas, the hospitable village life and beautiful landscape would be available.

Please accept the enclosed photograph of Mullah Mustafa Barzani as a token of my admiration for all that you and your people are doing to honor his memory.

William Carter

Barzani horse034brightness_corrected

View this video of “A Conversation with H.E. Masoud Barzani, President of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.”

I received this reply from Mr. Barzani dated May 17, 2015:

Letter from Masoud Barzani to William Carter

Written by bywilliamcarter

May 9, 2015 at 12:22 am

Yemen: Then As Now? Part 2

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Photographs by William Carter © 1964

yemen2.1House in Sanaa, the capital

 

yemen2.2Tribal representatives pleading with Egyptian “anti-colonial” troops

 

yemen2.3Heading north, where Egyptian-backed revolutionaries were fighting Saudi-backed royalists

 

yemen2.4View from a British helicopter

 

yemen2.5Outpost in South Yemen: note man in prayer on wall

 

yemen2.6Modern town of Taiz

 

yemen2.7Traditional town of Sanaa

 

yemen2.8Traders in the southern port of Aden

Written by bywilliamcarter

April 30, 2015 at 5:24 am

Yemen: Then as Now?

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Photographs and Text © William Carteryemen1.1Tribal elder near Sanaa, Yemen during the 1964 civil war. He carries a sprig of “ghat,” the mild national narcotic, in his hat

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.

 

yemen1.2Chinese 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.

yemen1.3Then as now, the ultimate victims were the children

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.

yemen1.4In the strategic port of Aden, the British were preparing to depart from a last vestige of Empire by holding an election

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.

Written by bywilliamcarter

April 16, 2015 at 2:55 am

More on Louis: Tone and Tonality

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all photographs © William Carter 1965

LouisandTrummy

When You’re Smilin’, Trummy Young and Louis Armstrong

 

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.

LouisBlackandBlue

Black and Blue

 

LouisYouRascalYou

You Rascal You

 

Written by bywilliamcarter

March 9, 2015 at 8:01 pm

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