By William Carter

Photographer, Author, Jazz Musician

Posts Tagged ‘jazz

Jazz + Photography (Part 3)

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A Spontaneous Collaboration

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.

What brought us together in one of those spontaneously rich, fleeting jazz moments was the decision by Watters (then retired) and Dane (who had been running her own San Francisco blues club called Sugar Hill) to make an album together as part of a protest movement aimed at stopping the California utilities agency from building a nuclear power plant at pristine Bodega Bay, north of San Francisco. For many reasons, the plant was never built. The recording session happened on December 1, 1963. My equipment was not yet the best, but the negatives have been in my files ever since (53 years and counting). Here are a few of those images.

Lu Watters Band recording "Blues Over Bodega"
The Lu Watters Band recording “Blues Over Bodega” in 1963. Personnel: Back row Bob Mielke, trombone; Lu Watters, trumpet; Bob Helm, clarinet; Barbara Dane, voice. Front row: Dave Black, drums; Bob Short, tuba; Frank Tateosian, banjo; Wally Rose, piano


Bob Mielke, Lu Watters, and Bob Helm
Bob Mielke, trombone; Lu Watters, trumpet; Bob Helm, clarinet at the 1963 recording session.


Lu Watters, Bob Helm, and Barbara Dan
Lu Watters, Bob Helm and Barbara Dane at the 1963 recording session.


Barbara Dane at the 1963 recording session
Barbara Dane at the 1963 recording session.
Lu Watters
Lu Watters on trumpet at the 1963 recording session.
Wally Rose
Wally Rose at the piano during the 1963 recording session.


Bob Helm
Bob Helm on clarinet at the 1963 recording session.

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

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April 26, 2017 at 3:20 pm

Portrait Of…?

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Content is in the eye of the beholder

by William Carter

The Holy Karmapa, age seven, at Tsurphu Monastery, Tibet, October, 1992. Eight years later, in 2000, he fled Chinese occupation to join the Dalai Lama in India. Photograph by William Carter 1992

Every picture carries meanings behind the surface — beyond the literal. Our yearning for such meanings makes us human. This enduring, endearing need for meaning appears in many guises.

Photographs carry values. Across much of Europe and the U.S., many of the old churches are empty. But the museums are full. People hunger for something beyond the commercial — even as some monuments of high culture seem to have become palaces of mass entertainment.

Every photograph is a slice through space, and a slice of time. Different slices mean differently to different persons.

The Karmapa, above, is looking at you, even as you are looking at him. What part of you is he looking at? How do you see him? If you are looking at him while he is looking at you, are you in effect looking at yourself?

And what about the shot below, of the Duchess and Duke of Windsor (the abdicated British king), and their driver: what do you — and the onlookers beyond the window — bring to this picture?

© William Carter 1967

Photograph by William Carter 1967

And what, then of pictures of your relatives, or your children? I took the photo below of Jobi, my wife’s grandson, on his 17th birthday. Different people see it differently. I don’t notice the hair, for example; I just see the eyes as spiritual; reminds me of an Italian Renaissance painting.

Jobim Morris Gavrielli, June 30, 2012; photograph by William Carter

Jobim Morris Gavrielli, June 30, 2012; photograph by William Carter

In the same way, my published photographs elicit a wide variety of responses. In my recent book, Causes and Spirits, my shot of an older woman carrying a watering can up the steps of her Minnesota bungalow in 1973 elicited an e-mail from a man who speculated on the market value of the house, then and now, 39 years later.

Northern Minnesota, 1973

Northern Minnesota, 1973

For decades (actually, centuries) artists in various media have preoccupied themselves with issues of their own identity. Contemporary educators and tastemakers have supported this kind of questioning, often as a critique of modern society. Since the 1970s some have even called it the “culture of complaint.” Sculptures such as this were evidently meant to shock visitors to the Jerusalem’s Israel Museum in 1993:

© William Carter 1993

Photograph by William Carter 1993

My response was to look elsewhere for things closer to my own heart. I found them in a nearby orphanage, and in a refugee camp:

© William Carter 1993

Photograph by William Carter 1993

© William Carter 1993

Photograph by William Carter 1993

In the Middle East, as I mentioned in earlier blogs, perception of identity and reality hinges crucially on tribal affiliation. My self-assignment as a photographer has long been to try to see past such tags, to the underlying humanity. Does this slot me with 19th century romanticism and impressionism, as opposed to modernism or postmodernism or what else is currently hip? Who cares? This image from Hungary in 1964 belies the fact that Russian tanks were parked just over the hill:

©William Carter 1964

Photograph by William Carter 1964

Or this one, in Yemen, at a time when the Egyptians and the Saudis were fighting a proxy war there, with the subtle involvement of the Americans and the Soviets (sound familiar?):

©William Carter 1964

Photograph by William Carter 1964

As a kind of summing up, here’s one from my book, Preservation Hall. It’s of Emanuel Sales singing in New Orleans. One of his fellow jazzmen told me, “You got to have soul, man, to do this work.”

©William Carter 1991

Photograph by William Carter 1991

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

Fleeting Treasures

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By William Carter

I arrived in New York City in the summer of 1962. Toting two Leicas, I hunted for a job and an apartment. I gravitated to a part of the Lower East Side which was later re-christened the East Village.

Since I had begun my career in California doing informal photographs of children, my first self-assignment was to extend that practice to these fresh surroundings. I spent a day with a couple of kids at Coney Island. I traversed dim wells behind tenements that served as de facto playgrounds. I dropped in on friends of friends living with their daughter in an artistic shack on Staten Island.

Half a century later, those freshly seen scenes keyed off my retrospective book, Causes and Spirits. Below are examples, plus a couple of images omitted from the book. I only met the Staten Island girl for a few minutes, but she graces the book’s front cover, and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. has requested the vintage original print. But what happened to that girl? By now she would be around 60.

The subsequent lives of the other kids remain just as mysterious. As I mentioned in an earlier blog, photography resembles jazz in that both art forms – like modern life in general – often express moments that are the most pungent when they are the most fleeting.

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

Staten Island, New York, 1962

Staten Island, New York, 1962, Causes & Spirits, jacket & pg. 29

Coney Island, New York, 1962

Coney Island, New York, 1962, Causes and Spirits, page 39

Lower East Side, New York, 1963

Lower East Side, New York, 1963, Causes and Spirits, page 31

Lower East Side, New York, 1963

Lower East Side, New York, 1963, Causes and Spirits, page 33

Lower East Side, New York, 1963

Lower East Side, New York, 1963. This photograph and the one below were made within moments of the one above.

Lower East Side, New York, 1963

Lower East Side, New York, 1963


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August 17, 2016 at 3:10 pm

Happy Accidents Part 1

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Bunnie Meade

Above: Bunnie Meade, subtitled “The Eminent Lady Clarinet Soloist,” turned up in the bin of a junk store in New Orleans. I could never learn any more about the winsome Madame Meade, so she never made it into my book on New Orleans jazz: “Preservation Hall” (W.W. Norton, 1991).

“If you break eggs – make an omelet.”

That old saying is good advice in life — being able to turn a negative into a positive is a creative response.

Similarly, a famous book by the cultural writer, Joseph Chilton Pearce, was called The Crack in the Cosmic Egg. Essences seep from seismic shifts.

The same can be true in the arts. “Accidental” has a particular, narrow meaning in music. Beyond that  are wider applications — especially in jazz. An improvising jazzman is bound to stumble now and then. Hitting a “clunker” means playing a wrong note outside the chord progression. Sometimes a quick-minded response can save the day: re-framing the phrase, or making the bad note part of a longer statement, or an accompanist quick-fixing the chord to suit, or recovering with good humor the way we sometimes do if we accidentally use the wrong word in everyday conversation.

Accidents can become a creative force in photography. One feature of my first three books (on Ghost Towns, the Middle West, and New Orleans Jazz) was to blend my own photos with historical ones. I loved researching old pictures in public archives. In the early 1970s I drove a camper across ten states, scouring the land looking for remnants of the early mining booms which had helped blast open the West. Here and there I would pause to comb local historical files. It was a kind of mining in itself. Spend a day, see maybe a thousand prints, feel great to find one that may make it into the book. There is a “happy accident” quality in this kind of research: staying open to the unexpected: the oddball treasure may not quite fit, but may inspire you to bend the narrative  to make room for it. Reproduced here are a couple of fun obscurities that I always wanted to print but had never found space for.

Indiana Bell Telephone

Fashionable employment in a town in rural America, 1920’s: I struggled to find a place for this shot in my book, “Middle West Country” (Houghton Mifflin, 1975), but never did.

Happy accidents are a breath of fresh air. But when you break eggs, how do you respond? That’s the key.

America’s Funniest Home Videos would be nothing if people didn’t spot and send in those homespun howlers. With only seconds to spare in the fading light, and only one exposure left in his camera, that ultimate plan-ahead craftsman, Ansel Adams, jammed on his car brakes, jumped out and grabbed his most famous photo, “Moonrise Over Hernandez.”

Fresh realms of re-interpretation have been opened by the transition from film to digital. My print, “Persepolis,” started life as a black-and-white negative. Following a trip through Iran in 1998, I had made a set of quick 4×6 proofs but neglected to properly “fix” them in the darkroom. Eleven years later, I was chagrined to find many had faded and/or acquired brownish streaks. One proof caught my eye. It had inadvertently become streaked with a haunting, 19th-century sort of patina. To preserve it, I scanned the little print. Then I blew it up. This “omelet” ended up in two states, in two sizes, now in limited editions, and the “state 1” image occupies a two-page spread in my new book, Causes and Spirits (Steidl, 2011). One of the larger sized State 1’s — 48 inches wide — now graces the wall of our dining room (see below).

Persepolis, Iran

Persepolis, Iran (State 1) Inkjet print 1998-2009

Persepolis women only

Persepolis, Iran (State 2), Inkjet print, 1998-2009

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

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October 28, 2015 at 2:00 pm

Tone in Art — and in Life

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Essential Dimensions

Sight, by William Carter, 1995

“Sight,” by William Carter, 1995

Women are natural masters of tone.  Their voices are extensions of their bodies and feelings – from cooing and whispering to babies, to the murmurs and cries of love making, to the exactingly regulated interview or phone voice of a business professional, to the bark of a drill sergeant or the yell of a basketball coach, to the whining shared grievances and inebriated hilarity of girls night out, to the plaintive pain of a close-miked blues singer, to the glass-shattering beltings of an old Broadway pro, to the moans of mourners the world over…  Men have no equivalent for such emotional precision.  (We do have other advantages.)

"Violante", by Titian, circa 1514 (Vienna: Kunsthistorisches Museum

“Violante”, by Titian, circa 1514 (Vienna: Kunsthistorisches Museum

Tone is as fundamental to art as it is to life.  It is about relationships.  It is about attitudes.  It has a billion nuances.  Tone subverts speech.  It is pre-literate: dogs, like newborn infants, get the message.  Like breathing and heartbeat, tone springs from sources preceding the analytical brain.

Each scrap of civilization is permeated by tonalities. And each separate civilization has its own dominant tone.  Choosing a tone, we can actually choose what sort of civilization we wish to live in — what sort of civilization we are creating, second by second, from the ground up (actually, from the underground up).

Tone is interwoven with the materials and techniques peculiar to each craft, each art.  The sounds of musical instruments are analogous to those of the human voice — bestowing limitless expressive possibilities.  Musical fundamentals – harmony, melody and rhythm — open into endless variations of emotion, attitude, relationship: carriers of thought and feeling, from sudden joy to the wisp of  a half-forgotten memory.  Essential to this conversation is the artist’s sensitivity to the ears of his listeners. Refined artistry implies respect for people’s receptive capacities.

And tone is interactive.  New Orleans jazz derived from street processions before it moved indoors to dance halls. The early jazzmen and their listeners were conditioned by both.  At certain events one early bandleader is said to have occasionally surprised everyone by shouting “Feet!” – an instruction to his players to suddenly cut the volume so far they could actually hear the shuffling feet of the dancers.

"Flora", by Titian, 1515-1520 (Florence, Galleria degli Uffizi)

“Flora,” by Titian, 1515-1520 (Florence, Galleria degli Uffizi)

Tone is crucial in writing.  The element hardest to teach, it remains after everything else has been fixed.  After each essay has been structured, each meaning parsed, each meaning clarified, the voice of the author, and his fictional characters, is what finally counts.  It is what we hear below the surface of language — what we ultimately care about in a person or a book.  The off-putting snarl, the simmering poetic glow, the endearing humor: tone is the attitude of the speaker toward his listeners and himself.

Tone is the light in the eye: the energy radiating from a person – what we really take away from an encounter.

Representations of the human face or body, in all the visual media, include great examples of tonal artistry — translating the invisible into the visible.  Titian painted many scenes from classical myths involving nudes; many sacred scenes in the Christian tradition, involving more discreet clothing; and many portraits.  His women often present a thoroughly mixed message: their neutral stare, the amount and distribution of skin revealed, and the sumptuous coloration and warm compositions, combine to make his subjects appear, at once, as holy as the Virgin and as sensual and shapely as a Venetian courtesan.  Rather than presenting these as opposites, he presents, at least in some cases, a mixed message.  As important as what they do or do not reveal of their breasts is the care the artist gives to the sumptuous fabrics and delicate lacework around or over the chests, arms and bodies.

"The Penitent Magdalen," by Titian, circa 1533 (Florence, Galleria Palatina)

“The Penitent Magdalen,” by Titian, circa 1533 (Florence, Galleria Palatina)

For me, Titian is using all his matchless talent and vast technical means to express the multi-layered, multi-valent wonder that is Woman.  Hiding while revealing, Titian enrolls us in the mystery, leaving it to us to make what we will of his women’s inscrutable faces.  This great Renaissance painter stood astride two intersecting epochs — the religious and the classical.  He was trained in the old, tightly restrained, exacting tempura technique; yet he pioneered the new, freer, emotionally expressive medium of oil and impasto on canvas. Such dualities fused to inform his work, but did not determine his vision.   Whoever happened to be sitting for him, in whatever moods, and whatever myths and fashions might have shaped the story telling, what counts for us, five centuries hence, is the look of the work – an aura of person-hood that confounds interpretation: a nobility of tone emanating to us from the canvas,  delivered to us out of the artist’s own being.

In photography, especially of people, whether clothed or unclothed, the word “tone” also applies to technical choices involving lighting, contrast, paper color, etc.  Such choices are necessary but not sufficient means en route to the work’s larger tone and overtones.  The attitude and intent of the photographer affect his choices of dramatic stage lighting vs. soft shadowless light – deep shadows for striking layouts in the magazine era, for instance, vs. subtle grey-scale values for intimate personal portraiture.  Layers of over-civilized European irony permeate the tough commercial nudes of glitterati like Helmut Newton or  Karl Lagerfeld.  Whereas the nudes of  gentle humanists, alive in a gentler age, such as Imogene Cunningham or Paul Strand, are all about tenderness.

How we see is who we are.  Inevitably, our tone, our voice,  is a projection of our inner state — our inner self.


“Megan,” by William Carter, 2006

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

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July 6, 2015 at 12:00 pm

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.

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

More on Louis: Tone and Tonality

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all photographs © William Carter 1965


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.


Black and Blue



You Rascal You


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March 9, 2015 at 8:01 pm

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