By William Carter

Photographer, Author, Jazz Musician

Jazz + Photography = Now (Part 1)

with 16 comments

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.

Copyright statement: William Carter papers, © Stanford University Libraries. Click here for a detailed usage guide.


16 Responses

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  1. […] Strange bedfellows, you might say? In 1963 Lu Watters, Bob Mielke and Barbara Dane were each into separate scenes in the San Francisco trad jazz world. As was I: playing occasional gigs, while becoming professionally committed as a photographer and writer. More on this here. […]


  2. Hello Bill,
    This post is pure genius. You’ve captured the essence of the soul of the artist, the magic of serendipity, the truth in the statement that success often lands on the one prepared to seize it. Your music, so exquisitely executed, takes me to an intimate club with a wooden floor and slightly raised stage, part of an eager and appreciative audience hungry for more. Thank you so very much. Medea


    Medea Isphording Bern

    June 3, 2013 at 4:02 pm

  3. […] Strange bedfellows, you might say?  In 1963 Lu Watters, Bob Mielke and Barbara Dane were each into separate scenes in the San Francisco trad jazz world.  As was I: playing occasional gigs, while becoming professionally committed as a photographer and writer. You can read more on this here. […]


  4. […] you want to dig deeper on the subject Jazz and Photography, please read this blog post of William […]


  5. […] you want to dig deeper on the subject Jazz and Photography, please read this blog post of William Carter. […]


  6. As I know and admire your work, I’m delighted to discovered your blog tonight Sir. I am myself a jazz photographer and musician and I would be very honoured if you have a look to my artwork. For sure, I have suscribed to yours and I will not miss any of your new wise posts. Respect. Greetings from Geneva, Switzerland


    Juan Carlos Hernandez

    August 27, 2011 at 10:07 pm

  7. Wondeful article — I’m a huge fan of the blend of jazz and photography — there’s a great blog over at — Jazz Photo Daily — that posts new jazz photos online every day, gives credit to the photographers, and links back to their work to promote them. Thought you might dig… certainly could help get greater exposure to your jazz-related work…


    David Marriott

    August 27, 2011 at 12:43 am

  8. thanks, and i appriecitaed the link making it very easy to see this…very helpful for those of us in the fossil generation

    having lived through many of those times with great musicians and photographs, it was very heartwarming to see them put together with such love and respect

    thanks for all your good works and professional efforts

    and congratulations on the publishing of your newest book “causes and spirits” which i can’t wait to see..

    i agree with robbie that it was fun to see willie on the smoky mary album and also the magnolia band…some of us looked quite young in those days! and what fun we had



    betty carter

    July 26, 2011 at 5:05 pm

  9. Congratulations Bill! Your genius touches all of us who come to know your great body of works including your photographic and jazz insights, your writing, your new book I just read about and your great experiences. You have found a great way to share with all of us out here on or in cyberspace…..
    Always, Tina



    July 19, 2011 at 10:34 pm

  10. Bill,

    What a great way to tell your many stories and show wonderful images. Thanks.


    PS what year was the Louis photograph taken?


    Keith Kappmeyer

    July 19, 2011 at 10:23 pm

  11. Wow.
    This is done so well!! and what a perfect way to work from wherever you are, And combining the writing, photography and music is perfect. Whoever helped you get this launched seems fabulous.
    And what a great platform for you knowledge, experiences, and new book launch!!!
    See ya soon,


    Jeff Hamilton

    July 19, 2011 at 8:58 pm

  12. Hi Bill, Congratulations on combining your photographic and musical insight so well. Each illuminates the other in unique and important ways, and I’ll stay tuned for further revelations. In the meantime, let me invite you to click my name and visit my blog. I’m still passionate about early jazz in New Orleans, and I enjoy writing about it and related musical subjects from time to time. BTW, what a treat to see Willie Humphrey’s and the Magnolia Jazz 5 album covers. Cheers!


    Robbie Schlosser

    July 19, 2011 at 7:46 pm




    July 19, 2011 at 7:17 pm

    • Hello Bill,
      So very glad to hear from you and to enjoy your wonderful pictures. Loved the “Humanity” pictures from Italy and Nebraska and Iowa and Jerusalem – each one brings either a tear, a smile, or a sense of wonderment.

      So many years have gone by since we touched base. I’m so glad for you that you have been able to fulfill your dreams and meld your talents in such an integrated, creative and centered way.

      I look forward to reading your new book. Keep in touch.
      Warm regards,
      Tanya Joy



      July 20, 2011 at 4:07 am

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