BOB WILLOUGHBY’S REMARKABLE PORTRAITS

Because they give themselves to what they are creating, jazz musicians make splendid photographic subjects.

Bob Willoughby, who died in 2009, wasn’t the first to capture their intensity, lack of self-consciousness, and energy on camera.  But his beautiful volume of photographs and recollections, JAZZ: BODY AND SOUL, shows on every page that his work is superbly moving.  (Evans Mitchell, 2012, 192 pages, hardbound.)

Since musicians — in the act of creation — aren’t standing still, some photographs begin to look like versions of poses we have already seen a thousand times before: the horn player, face distended, sweating, looking like a runner just before crossing the finish line; the intimate relationship between the singer and the vertical microphone; the drummer, moving so quickly that the sticks blur.  Other photographs entrance us because they are the only visual evidence we have that an otherwise obscure musician was ever seen.

Willoughby’s work goes well beyond these formulas, although some of his images have been reproduced so widely that they are now the way that we mentally identify the subject.  But even his most famous pictures have something to offer us, a half-century after they were created.

The book is divided into two sections: one of Wlloughby’s West Coast photographs from 1950 to — Billie Holiday, Wardell Gray, Miles Davis, George Shearing, Ella Fitzgerald, Gene Krupa, Roy Eldridge, Coleman Hawkins, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Ventura, Billy Eckstine, Louis Armstrong, the Stan Kenton Orchestra, Duke Ellington, Ray Nance, Paul Gonsalves, Johnny Hodges, Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly, Chet Baker, Gerry Mulligan, Paul Desmond, Dave Brubeck, Peggy Lee.  Particularly absorbing is a series of dramatic photographs catching the emotional interplay between saxophonist Big Jay McNeely and a crowd in hysterical rapture.  Willoughby photographed Benny Goodman, Teddy Wilson, Stan Getz, Buck Clayton, Martha Tilton and friends during the recording sessions for the soundtrack of THE BENNY GOODMAN STORY.  An extended photo-essay on Frank Sinatra tells us more than any biography.

The second section of the book offers photographs Willoughby created in Germany in 1992 and 1994 — fascinating portraits of Lee Konitz, Marcus Roberts, Jon Faddis, Art Farmer, Wynton Marsalis, Pat Metheny, John Lewis, Mulligan much transformed by the years, and many others.

Having purchased many volumes of photographs of jazz musicians, I tend to look at the book with fascination immediately after their purchase . . . but not often after.  Willoughby’s book has proven itself an exception.  In tne month that I have had a copy, I have come back to it over and over, drawn by what his eye captured — tantalizing wordless dramas that open deeper each time I stare into the pages.

And the appeal of the book is wider than the allure of the musicians portrayed there.  Without being precious or coy, Willoughby created small paintings full of feeling, emotion coming through the lovely blacks, greys, and whites.  He was a master of seeing, of shaping line and angle, shape and focus.  I look at these portraits and I can feel Louis’ happiness, imagine the words passing between Bing and Frank on the set of CAN-CAN, hear Billie’s voice.  In addition, Willoughby’s photos are idiosyncratic master classes for photographers: what to emphasize, what to leave out. . . all the more remarkable because he captured his subjects in the moment.

Marc Myers, of JAZZ WAX, knew and spoke with Willoughby, and the essays Marc has created about the man and his work are rewarding (with photographs that will astonish): read more here and here.   The book’s website — with even more beautiful pictures — can be found here.  Willoughby’s photographs reward the eye.

May your happiness increase.

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