Jazz owes a great deal to people who never take a chorus: Milt Gabler and Lucille Armstrong, Norman Granz and Helen Oakley Dance. And Charles Peterson.
Long before I knew anything about Charles Peterson, I admired the photography and artistic sensibility. Because photographs get reprinted without attribution, I had seen much of his work without knowing it was his. That is, until the fine book SWING ERA NEW YORK: THE JAZZ PHOTOGRAPHS OF CHARLES PETERSON (Temple University Press, 1994) appeared, with priceless shots by Peterson and commentary by W. Royal Stokes. (The book is now officially out of print, but copies are available from the usual online sources.)
Between 1935 and 1951, his camera and flashbulbs ready, Peterson went to jazz clubs, parties, concerts, and recording sessions. That in itself would be enough, but he also approached his subjects in subtle, ingenious ways. He avoided the formulaic full-frontal studio portraits or the equally hackneyed poses that jazz musicians are forced into. He saw what other photographers didn’t.
Granted, he had wonderful visual material to work with. Many jazz musicians are unconsciously expressive, even dramatic, when they play, sing, or listen; many of them have eloquently unusual faces.
But who was Charles Peterson?
His son, Don, who takes such good care of his father’s invaluable prints and negatives, told me about his father’s fascinating life. And, not incidentally, the photographs that follow are reproduced with Don’s permission.
Charles Peterson wasn’t born with a camera in his hand, just off Fifty-Second Street. Rather, he was born to Swedish wheat farmers in Minnesota on January 3, 1900. On a trip to New Orleans while he was still in high school, he bought himself a banjo in a pawnshop. Musically self-taught, he spent his college years playing local dance halls and summer resort hotels. By 1926, he was such an accomplished jazz player on guitar and banjo that he was part of a band with a residency at the Dacotah Hotel in Grand Forks, North Dakota. The band was so good that its stars were raided for big bands as far away as Chicago — bands whose leaders were alumni of the Paul Whiteman Orchestra.
The Dacotah Hotel, before 1923
Peterson had what they called “pluck” in those days, and drove his Mercer Raceabout to New York City to interview for job in publishing. But once there he followed his love of music, and he met Pee Wee Russell and many of Russell’s Chicago colleagues and friends — including one Eddie Condon. He and Pee Wee shared a room and Peterson worked with first-string hot jazz players including Wingy Manone. But hot jazz didn’t pay well, and Peterson found steady employment with Rudy Vallee and his Connecticut Yankees, a successful but much more staid group. Married and with a son, Peterson looked for a steady job instead of one-nighters on the road. With the money he had saved from Vallee, where he had been earning $300 a week in the Depression, Peterson took a year off to study photography at the Clarence White School — on the recommendation of Edward Steichen (Peterson had met Steichen when Steichen was photographing the Connecticut Yankees for Vanity Fair.
Peterson’s knowledge of the music business and his friendship with musicians were invaluable, and he was at the right place and moment in history — not simply because he took rooms above the Onyx Club. He began with portraits and publicity shots, then moved to capturing jazz players and singers in action — Jack Teagarden, Bunny Berigan, Billie Holiday, Sidney Bechet, and dozens of others in big bands and small, jam sessions and apartment get-togethers. His photographs were prominently featured in multi-page spreads in LIFE and other glossy magazines. Don remembers that while he was a fifth-grader at the progressive Walt Whitman School, his father assembled a jazz band to play for the students and their families in an informal concert that began at 1 PM and went on into the evening. The participants? Only Louis Armstrong, Brad Gowans, Pee Wee Russell, Bobby Hackett, Joe Sullivan, Eddie Condon, and Zutty Singleton — all Peterson’s friends.
During the Second World War, Peterson’s jazz photography came to a halt, and after the war, although he photographed Ella Fitzgerald and Terry Gibbs, Buck Clayton, Joe Bushkin, the Red Norvo Trio, and his friends at Eddie Condon’s club, his career gradually came to a close in 1951. Peterson wasn’t fond of modern jazz and had moved, with his wife, to a small farm in Pennsylvania. He had many interests outside music and photography, and devoted himself to them — from farming to literature to metalwork and boats — until his death in 1976.
Here are photographs by Charles Peterson that have not been published anywhere else — the first of several installments.
The first one isn’t a classic photo, but we need to the man himself — in the best company. Peterson sometimes liked to include himself in the shot, so he would set up his camera, arrange the photograph, and ask a competent anonymous amateur to press the button. He did just that on December 29, 1940, capturing himself and Pee Wee Russell at a private party in what I assume is a New York City apartment. It is a candid snapshot: I imagine Peterson saying to someone, “Hey, take a picture of Pee Wee and myself,” and the person holding the camera has waited a beat too long. Pee Wee’s amused expression is beginning to freeze; surely he would rather have lit the cigarette in his hand. Peterson himself is caught in the middle of saying something perhaps under his breath, which I imagine as “Press the button already.” A professional photographer wouldn’t have made this a trio of Peterson, Rinso, and Russell, either. But we see Peterson in his natural surroundings, someone who could have been taken for a handsome, sharply-dressed character actor in a current film.
The next photograph moves both Peterson and readers away from boxes of crackers and detergent to a much more emotionallycharged space: the recording studio used by the newly-hatched Blue Note record label for the Port of Harlem Seven session on June 8, 1939. Peterson was fortunate enough to be invited to a number of recording sessions — his friends were playing and everyone hoped that a Peterson photograph might be published in a major magazine. (One of his most famous photographs is of drummer Zuty Singleton at a 1938 session for the Hot Record Society, featuring Pee Wee, Dicky Wells, and Freddie Green!)
Peterson captured the whole Port of Harlem Seven — including Frank Newton, J.C. Higginbotham, Meade Lux Lewis, Johnny Williams, Teddy Bunn — in action, but he chose in this shot to concentrate on Sidney Bechet, who would eventually give up the clarinet for the soprano saxophone, and Sidney Catlett.
In this photograph, it is June, and although musicians typically kept their suits and hats on while recording, Catlett has come prepared to exert himself, dressed for hot work in an open-necked short-sleeve shirt that seems more country than town, with suspenders that pull his suit trousers up beyond what we might think of as comfortable. If there was any doubt as to why he was called “Big Sid,” this photo should act as silent testimony to breadth as well as height: his shoulders, the solidity of his upper arms, even though the fingers of his right hand are holding the drumstick gracefully and delicately, the suggestions of Native American bone structure in his face.
Catlett’s mouth is part-open, and unlike the first photograph, where it seems that Peterson is inadvertently caught speaking, here Catlett is clearly exhorting, cheering Bechet on. “Yeaaaaaahhh,” he says, quietly intent. Bechet’s eyes are half-closed; his necktie seems a montage of mock-neon letters; he holds the clarinet at a distinct angle. His arm, or perhaps the clarinet, casts a dark shadow across the canvas that is his white dress shirt. (The angle itself is suggestive: Bechet said that he gave up the clarinet because the vibrations hurt his dental work. Does this picture capture him in pain, working hard to play that most difficult of single-reed instruments?)
What Peterson understood, even in the restrictive confines of the recording studio, where the photographer has no control over what his subjects are doing — this is obviously the very opposite of a “posed” shot — was the possibilities of shadow and light. Figuring out what the camera and the flashbulb would make bright, half-bright, dim, or black, determined much more about the total effect of the shot.
Look closely at Catlett’s three cymbals — from the left, a Chinese cymbal, then in right foreground a ride cymbal, and apparently submerged beneath it, the top of his hi-hat: three pieces of round metal, all except the Chinese tapering down from a center cap to their edge. Without noticing it at first, the viewer takes in the different visual textures of the three: the Chinese cymbal, its surface not flat but rather a series of small convexities, appearing dark and light, “like gold to airy thinness beat”; the top of the ride bymbal, although not grooved, reflecting light much like the grooves of a 78 rpm record; the hi-hat, darkly hidden beneath it. The viewer senses the shadowing of Catlett’s face, highlighting the texture of his skin, the solidity of his skull, and the dark shadow on the studio wall.
Peterson’s photographs have resonant depth, unlike our modern digital snapshots of groups of people that make their subjects look like cardboard figures flattened against the wall. Nothing is blurred, even though these two men are in motion; one imagines the exultant, gutty sounds they make.
Many photographs of trumpet players catch them straight-on, their faces wracked with the effort of hitting a high note. Foreshortening makes them look tiny behind the bell of their horn. This June 1939 photograph, taken from the side, catches Roy Eldridge at the Arcadia Ballroom as he takes a breath between multi-noted phrases. Taking in air, he appears to be smiling, and it’s a good possibility he is. To his right, tenor saxophonist Franz Jackson is clapping his hands, an arranged routine — the band marking time rhythmically as Eldridge, in the best Louis manner, hits some high ones at the climax of a hot number. The bassist, who may be Ted Sturgis, is concentrating, as is the guitarist. Jackson’s section-mate in the reeds is also keeping time enthusiastically. Peterson has framed his shot so that Eldridge and his horn are central, an upturned capital letter L, with all the light focused on that silvery mute, where all the energy was focused. Luckily for us, this band broadcast on the radio, and airshots were issued thirty-five years later . . . . so one could play these exuberant performance while burying oneself in this photograph — the nearest thing possible to going back in time.
In 1945, Sidney Bechet formed a quintet for an extended run at “Boston’s Hot-spot of Rhythm,” the Savoy Cafe. This photograph captures the band when Bunk Johnson was the trumpeter; bassist Pops Foster stayed throughout the run. Bunk had a hard time keeping up with Bechet, who seemed to have limitless energy and stamina. Bechet also shared the front line with the rather introverted Peter Bocage; finally, the only trumpeter who could stand alongside Sidney and not be swept away was the 18-year old Johnny Windhurst, whose golden tone and youthful verve come through on airshots of the band’s “Jazz Nocturne” broadcasts.
In this photograph, it’s hard to imagine the tempo that the band is playing, but we feel the unstated contest of wills. Bechet is fierce: his head and eyes revealing the effort. Pops Foster is smiling at what Sidney is playing; one side of his shirt collar is trying to break free. Bunk is sitting down, his horn pointed downward, its shadow a dark arrow. His face is serious, even pained. Were his teeth bothering him? Was he feeling the strain of trying to equal Bechet? Was he only playing a quiet countermelody? It’s impossible to tell, but the picture is a study in masterful power: Bechet has it, Pops Foster is riding in its wake, and Bunk looks nearly exhausted, defeated by it.
This photograph, taken at a Jimmy Ryan’s Sunday afternoon jam session on November 9, 1941, is the emotional opposite of the struggle bwetween Bechet and Bunk. There is no struggle for mastery between trombonist Vic Dickenson and bassist Al Morgan. Rather, the bell of Vic’s horn is close to Morgan’s ear. Through that length of metal tubing, Vic is telling Morgan something important and gratifying. What’s the secret? Is it a characteristically deep meditation on the nature of the blues, or is it exactly why all the boys treated Sister Kate so nice? We’ll never know, but Morgan hears it, and his smile shows that he gets it, too.
And Peterson got it: the joy and the stress of the soloist trying to have his or her say, and the urging, happy community of jazz players bound together in common for expression and exultation. When SWING ERA NEW YORK appeared, the best assessment of Peterson’s work came from another photographer-musician: bassist Milt Hinton, who wrote, “I saw it, lived it, Charles Peterson captured it. His visual imagery of the swing era in New York is authentic, intimate, and filled with emotion.”
More photographs to come — including Billie Holiday, Frank Newton, Bobby Hackett, Eddie Condon, and some surprises.