By William Carter

Photographer, Author, Jazz Musician

Posts Tagged ‘photo

Jazz Emerges Part 6

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Visible Roots of America’s Most Original Cultural Product

The Basses of Our Music

Photographs by William Carter, 1971-1985

Above: listen to bassist Pops Foster with the Luis Russell Orchestra from 1929, “Jersey Lightning.” Also on this record are New Orleans men Henry “Red” Allen, Albert Nicholas and Paul Barbarin. Virtually all of the New Orleans bass players depicted in this post played in an energetic, percussive style very similar to Foster’s.

FUNDAMENTAL: Historians and scholars have long believed the world's first jazz band to have been that of Buddy Bolden, whose powerful cornet was heard from the bandstands of city parks and dance halls across New Orleans in the early years of the twentieth century. The only member of the Bolden band known to have survived into the 1960s was bassist Papa John Joseph, shown above in an upstairs room at Associated Artists gallery, which morphed into Preservation Hall. Joseph played concert sets downstairs until 1965, when, at 87, he collapsed and died seconds after performing When the Saints Go Marching In. Photograph by Bobby Coke, early 1960s

FUNDAMENTAL: Historians and scholars have long believed the world’s first jazz band to have been that of Buddy Bolden, whose powerful cornet was heard from the bandstands of city parks and dance halls across New Orleans in the early years of the twentieth century. The only member of the Bolden band known to have survived into the 1960s was bassist Papa John Joseph, shown above in an upstairs room at Associated Artists gallery, which morphed into Preservation Hall. Joseph played concert sets downstairs until 1965, when, at 87, he collapsed and died seconds after performing When the Saints Go Marching In. Photograph by Bobby Coke, early 1960s

IN PERPETUAL DEMAND around New Orleans, and on numerous road trips across the U.S. and Europe, muscular bassist Chester Zardis (1900-1990) employed a powerful style that belied his physical shortness of stature and earned him the nickname "Little Bear." In the post-World War II years, younger proteges flocked to hear and meet early New Orleans masters like Zardis. Thus was a once-obscure, pre-electronic bass plucking technique revived and carried forward across generations and over continents. Photograph by William Carter, 1984

IN PERPETUAL DEMAND around New Orleans, and on numerous road trips across the U.S. and Europe, muscular bassist Chester Zardis (1900-1990) employed a powerful style that belied his physical shortness of stature and earned him the nickname “Little Bear.” In the post-World War II years, younger proteges flocked to hear and meet early New Orleans masters like Zardis. Thus was a once-obscure, pre-electronic bass plucking technique revived and carried forward across generations and over continents.
Photograph by William Carter, 1984

NEW ORLEANS BASS STYLIST Wellman Braud (1891-1966) reached the top of his profession as a mainstay with Duke Ellington, plus many other engagements. Like a number of the classic jazzmen, Braud descended from a Creole musical family -- several of whom, such as his cousin, bassist McNeil Breaux, used an alternate spelling of the French-derived last name. Like many another jazz pioneer, Wellman eventually settled in California, accepting gigs such as with blues singer Barbara Dane. Photograph by William Carter, c. 1960

NEW ORLEANS BASS STYLIST Wellman Braud (1891-1966) reached the top of his profession as a
mainstay with Duke Ellington, plus many other engagements. Like a number of the classic jazzmen, Braud descended from a Creole musical family — several of whom, such as his cousin, bassist McNeil
Breaux, used an alternate spelling of the French-derived last name. Like many another jazz pioneer,
Wellman eventually settled in California, accepting gigs such as with blues singer Barbara Dane. Photograph by William Carter, c. 1960

FAMOUS BASSIST Pops Foster (lower right), 1892-1969, was already playing professionally in New Orleans by 1907. Amid a busy career of touring and gigging with top jazz names, he lived mainly in New York and (eventually) San Francisco. He is shown here (bottom right) in a photo from his own collection with an all-star band that included New Orleans natives Alvin Alcorn (piano, bottom left) Alvin Alcorn (trumpet, center) and Cie Frazier (drums, top right). Photograph: San Francisco Traditional Jazz Foundation Collection, Archive of Recorded Sound, Stanford University (date unknown)

FAMOUS BASSIST Pops Foster (lower right), 1892-1969, was already playing professionally in New Orleans by 1907. Amid a busy career of touring and gigging with top jazz names, he lived mainly in New York and (eventually) San Francisco. He is shown here (bottom right) in a photo from his own collection with an all-star band that included New Orleans natives  Alvin Alcorn (trumpet, center) and Cie Frazier (drums, top right). Photograph: San Francisco Traditional Jazz Foundation Collection, Archive of Recorded Sound, Stanford University (date unknown)

Listen to bassist Pops Foster on “Ostrich Walk” with Mutt Carey’s band

TALENTED SON of bandleader Henry Allen, trumpeter Henry "Red" Allen (1906-1967) played extensively in New Orleans, on the Mississippi riverboats and in Chicago before settling in New York, where he was featured as soloist and sideman with top jazz orchestras of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s including those of Luis Russell, Fats Waller, Fletcher Henderson and Eddie Condon -- besides leading several of his own bands. Photograph by William Carter, 1964

TALENTED SON of bandleader Henry Allen, trumpeter Henry Red Allen (1906-1967) played extensively in New Orleans, on the Mississippi riverboats and in Chicago before settling in New York, where he was featured as soloist and sideman with top jazz orchestras of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s including those of Luis Russell, Fats Waller, Fletcher Henderson and Eddie Condon — besides leading several of his own bands. Photograph by William Carter, 1964

UNDISPUTED EMPEROR OF TRADITIONAL JAZZ, Louis Armstrong (1901-1971) enjoyed a career too spectacular to summarize. While occupying center stage in America's mainstream musical culture for virtually half a century, in his music and in his words "Satchmo" never ceased to recall, with great affection, his formative New Orleans years as a streetwise orphan and fledgling brass band cornetist. Photographs by William Carter, 1962

UNDISPUTED EMPEROR OF TRADITIONAL JAZZ, Louis Armstrong (1901-1971) enjoyed a career too spectacular to summarize. While occupying center stage in America’s mainstream musical culture for virtually half a century, in his music and in his words Satchmo never ceased to recall, with great affection, his formative New Orleans years as a streetwise orphan and fledgling brass band cornetist. Photographs by William Carter, 1962

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Jazz Emerges Part 3

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Spirit Matters

Visible Roots of America’s Most Original Cultural Product


CLICK THE ARROW ABOVE to listen to The old Eureka Band, led from the 1930s by Percy Humphrey., Tops in the city, as late as the 1950s its joyous processions were marked by a dignity and decorum since overtaken by the wild and garish. Photos by Tom Sharpsteen, compiled with sound by Clint Baker and Katie Cavera, used here with permission.

Years ago, the French Quarter streets were amazingly quiet.  Especially in the mornings, before the few tourists were out and about, this historic section – located near the river, yet built on high ground for good reason – retained its residential feel. New Orleans’ slow-going, personal style, out of the national mainstream, had much to do with how it cradled classic jazz for most of a century.

But other than a couple of sleazy joints on Bourbon Street, it was hard for a musician to feed his family, or for a visitor to hear the real deal. Still, the city’s close-knit neighborhoods proclaimed their musical birthright at pop-up parties, funky dance halls, street events, church memorials. “Let the good times roll,” translated from the French, was always there, highlighted by everyone’s anticipation of the Mardi Gras Carnival, which they prepare for all year long.

The past has always loomed large in this survival culture where one never knew what tragedies the future might hold. Generations of musicians have long been linked by family ties, spiritual traditions, personal musical tutelage, people caring for neighbors. By the 1970s I had met and played with musicians in several cities of the world, but only in New Orleans did you learn so quickly where they lived — on which block of which street, in which ward, near which landmark.  And no other city has ever spawned so many tunes named for beloved streets, from Basin to Canal to Bourbon to Burgundy to…

Within weeks of arriving, I knew I had arrived when I was invited to jam on the sidewalk to celebrate the birthday of an old lady named Miss Carrie. Then on ten minutes notice I donned a parade hat to go play a gig at Antoine’s fancy restaurant. Then I joined a procession of Japanese visitors marching to the graveside of clarinet great George Lewis. There were plenty of weeks of no action at all. But one thing was sure: in New Orleans nobody ever needs to be asked to “play with feeling.”

Preservation Hall, St. Peter Street, French Quarter, New Orleans, early morning, after the streets have been freshly washed and workers are filtering back to their jobs in the tourist industry. Photograph by William Carter, 1984

Preservation Hall, St. Peter Street, French Quarter, New Orleans, early morning, after the streets have been freshly washed and workers are filtering back to their jobs in the tourist industry.
Photograph by William Carter, 1984

Serenading a friend of the musicians, Miss Carrie, at her home typified the informality of French Quarter musical culture. Left to right: Miss Carrie; bass drummer Booker T. Glass; student Jennifer Hamilton wearing band hat; washboard player Allan Jaffe. Photograph by William Carter, 1974

Serenading a friend of the musicians, Miss Carrie, at her home typified the informality of French Quarter musical culture. Left to right: Miss Carrie; bass drummer Booker T. Glass; student Jennifer Hamilton wearing band hat; washboard player Allan Jaffe. Photograph by William Carter, 1974

Left to right: trumpeter De De Pierce; tubaist Allan Jaffe; clarinetist Willie Humphrey with Preservation Hall Jazz Band on tour in California. Under Jaffe's tough but caring marketing expertise, the down-home sincerity of the players was welcomed as part and parcel of their music by adoring fans in major concert venues worldwide. Photograph by William Carter, c. 1970

Left to right: trumpeter De De Pierce; tubaist Allan Jaffe; clarinetist Willie Humphrey with Preservation Hall Jazz Band on tour in California. Under Jaffe’s marketing expertise the warm sincerity of the players was welcomed as part and parcel of their music by adoring fans in major concert venues worldwide.
Photograph by William Carter, c. 1970

Pianist-vocalist Sing Miller at concert; "You gotta have soul to do this work," he told a photographer. Photograph by William Carter, 1975

Pianist-vocalist Sing Miller at concert; “You gotta have soul to do this work,” he told a photographer. Photograph by William Carter, 1975

Trombonist Louis Nelson at a private party in the French Quarter. For many years Nelson was featured in the bands of Barry Martyn and others on countless European tours, as well as with trumpeter Kid Thomas and others across the U.S. under the Preservation Hall banner. The watchword of such brass players was a simple, honest sound derived from decades of experience processioning through the streets of the city by day and working down-home dance halls by night. Photograph by William Carter, 1984

Trombonist Louis Nelson at a private party in the French Quarter. For many years Nelson was
featured in the bands of Barry Martyn and others on countless European tours, as well as with trumpeter Kid Thomas and others across the U.S. under the Preservation Hall banner. The watchword of such brass players was a simple, honest sound derived from decades of experience processioning through the streets of the city by day and working down-home dance halls by night. Photograph by William Carter, 1984

Drummer Paul Barbarin's manuscript of his song, "The Second Line" © circa 1960: the term "second line" refers to the enthusiasts who walk and dance along with the brass bands during the New Orleans street parades. Collection of William Carter

Drummer Paul Barbarin’s manuscript of his song, “The Second Line” © circa 1960: the term “second line” refers to the enthusiasts who walk and dance and exult beside the brass bands along the routes of the street parades. Collection of William Carter

Clarinetist Paul "Polo" Barnes' manuscript of his tune "My Josephine," New Orleans, prior to 1960. Polo was remembered by jazz buffs for his tours and recordings with Jelly Roll Morton and King Oliver around 1930. He was remembered by his neighbors for playing sweet songs by himself on summer evenings in his back yard. Collection of William Carter

Clarinetist Paul “Polo” Barnes’ manuscript of his tune “My Josephine,” New Orleans, prior to 1960. Polo was remembered by jazz buffs for his tours and recordings with Jelly Roll Morton and King Oliver around 1930. He was remembered by his neighbors for playing sweet songs by himself on summer evenings in his back yard. Collection of William Carter

Entertainers in a Bourbon Street nightclub: some clowning is traditional among New Orleans musicians, but in the commercial joints they often faced degrading conditions. Bassist at right is jazzman James Prevost. Prior to 1960. Courtesy Hogan Jazz Archive, Tulane University

Entertainers in a Bourbon Street nightclub: some clowning is traditional among New Orleans musicians, but in the commercial joints they often faced degrading conditions. Bassist at right is jazzman James Prevost. Prior to 1960. Courtesy Hogan Jazz Archive, Tulane University

Sister Gertrude Morgan at Associated Artists gallery, New Orleans. Photograph by Dan Leyrer, before 1960.

Sister Gertrude Morgan at Associated Artists gallery, New Orleans. Photograph by Dan Leyrer, before 1960.

Revival service, Church of God in Christ, New Orleans. Photograph by Ralston Crawford, 1950s. Courtesy Hogan Jazz Archive, Tulane University

Revival service, Church of God in Christ, New Orleans. Photograph by Ralston Crawford, 1950s. Courtesy Hogan Jazz Archive, Tulane University

Clarinetist George Lewis with his mother, Alice Zeno, New Orleans. An internationally influential jazz stylist, Lewis loved playing simple hymns. He said, "I consider myself as a beginner from the time I started till now." Photograph by Stanley Kubrick (?), c. 1950.

Clarinetist George Lewis with his mother, Alice Zeno, New Orleans. An internationally influential jazz stylist, Lewis loved playing simple hymns. He said, “I consider myself as a beginner from the time I started till now.” Photograph by Stanley Kubrick (?), c. 1950.

Reedmen Tom Sharpsteen & Ryoichi Kawai; banjoist Junichi Kawai and others pay homage at clarinetist George Lewis' grave, New Orleans. Photograph by William Carter, 1984

Reedmen Tom Sharpsteen & Ryoichi Kawai; banjoist Junichi Kawai and others pay homage at clarinetist George Lewis’ grave, New Orleans. Photograph by William Carter, 1984

Tubaist/entrepreneur Allan Jaffe paying his respects at a New Orleans memorial service for trombone star Jim Robinson. Photograph by Grauman Marks, 1976

Tubaist/entrepreneur Allan Jaffe paying his respects at a New Orleans memorial service for trombone star Jim Robinson. Photograph by Grauman Marks, 1976

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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

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October 28, 2015 at 2:00 pm

The Tones of Stones

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Sometimes, in our wanderings across the landscape of ancient Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, and elsewhere in the eastern Mediterranean, my wife Ulla and I would stumble into a silent, ancient amphitheater. Persuaded to try my clarinet in that dry air, I’d soon be assured that even the softest tones carried well into the high rows.

Ulla and I treasure such sweet memories. But now they are jarred with bitter undertones —  endless war, brutal destruction at such magnificent sites as Palmyra.

Below, our sentimental snaps of twenty years ago have an implicit simplicity, a clarity of tone hard to recall today.

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tones2

tones3

tones4

tones5

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September 11, 2015 at 4:41 pm

Versions of Ourselves

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I am as addicted to digits as the next person. But my caring comes from elsewhere.

Culture wars, like other wars, take their toll.  Unexpected outcomes flow into our sinews and, welcome or not, affect our feelings and expressions.

I grew up in a town dedicated to change — in an era summed up in the famous motto of a leading corporation, “Progress is our most important product.”  Postwar LA, powered by newborn defense industries, famous for its movies, a thinly peopled, dry basin lacking deep cultural roots, facing the vast Pacific, was perfectly placed for the unfettered growth and change that was soon underway.

My own personal model was the opposite.  I sought permanent values, humaneness, the depths not the surfaces.  Spiritual affirmation — particularly in the arts. So, physically and mentally, I went the other way from LA.  The older tradition of great West Coast photographers had inspired me, but by the 1960s I needed to move on from there to places like New York, London, the Middle East and India – where close-up tenderness and long-term values still seemed alive and honored.

In California there were plenty of photographers of the old school to inspire me. But their dynamic was gradually being eclipsed. Although not particularly “outgoing,” I did go out. I developed the unfashionable notion that the role of the artist was not to stand off and snipe at the ugly aspects of world, but to offer a positive alternative: in that most unfashionable of words — beauty.  In an era beset by counter-cultural attack modes, I remain a counter-revolutionary.

The two photographs below, by Struth and Cunningham, are well-known offerings of contrasting states of soul.  Which would you rather hold close?

 

Thomas Struth, “String Handling," SolarWorld, Frieberg 2011 Thomas Struth, “String Handling,” SolarWorld, Frieberg 2011

 

Imogen Cunningham, “The Unmade Bed,” 1957 Imogen Cunningham, “The Unmade Bed,” 1957

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August 3, 2015 at 12:00 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

“Megan,” by William Carter, 2006

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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.

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