Tag Archives: LIFE magazine

THE JAZZ BOOKSHELF: “JAZZ BEAT: NOTES ON CLASSIC JAZZ” and “MR. B”

A quarter-century ago, in actual bookstores, I could find shelves devoted to books on jazz.  That reassuring sight still exists (I saw it in the Strand in New York last week) but the great era of print publishing is, understandably, over. Thus it’s always a pleasure to encounter new books on jazz, and the two below are quite different but will both reward readers.

Jazz-Beat-review--195x300

JAZZ BEAT: NOTES ON CLASSIC JAZZ, by Lew Shaw (AZtold Publishing) is a very amiable collection of profiles written by an admiring, long-time fan and former sportswriter.

What makes these brief affectionate portraits different from the norm is that all (except one) the musicians in this book are living.  Not all of them are stars, but they have devoted followings — from the youthful Jonathan “Jazz” Russell, Pete and Will Anderson, Josh Duffee, Michael Kaeshammer, Ben Polcer, Molly Ryan, Bria Skonberg, Andy Schumm, Stephanie Trick, to the veterans Bill Allred, Jim Cullum, Bob Draga, Yve Evans, Chet Jeager, Flip Oakes, Bucky Pizzarelli, Richard Simon, Mike Vax, Pat Yankee, and Ed Polcer — the book’s inspiration, whose picture is on the cover.

Shaw also profiles other regulars on the festival circuit, Tom Rigney, the Uptown Lowdown Jazz Band, the Natural Gas Jazz Band, the New Black Eagles, Igor’s Jazz Cowboys.

His emphasis is on musicians exploring older jazz forms and repertoire, but the book is happily free from ideological bickering (with one exception, and the words aren’t the author’s*.  The book is comfortable and easy: I sense that the musicians are delighted to find someone sympathetic, interested, willing to get the facts right for publication.

I was pleased to find a number of my jazz friends and heroes profiled, among them Clint Baker, Kevin Dorn, Banu Gibson, Nicki Parrott, Carl Sonny Leyland, Randy Reinhart, Hal Smith, Rossano Sportiello, and the late Mat Domber.  I know I’ve left several people off this list, but readers will have fun seeing some of their favorites here.

Shaw’s method is simple: he establishes the musician’s place in the world of contemporary traditional jazz, constructs a brief biography — a story rather than a collection of dates and a listing of names and places.  Some comments from a writer or blogger offer different insights (I’m even quoted here a few times) and the musician speaks for him or herself.  The result is a fast-moving collection of short pieces (somewhere between journalistic features and extensive liner notes) that capture their subjects’ personalities in only a few pages.

Shaw is frankly admiring — from a literate fan’s perspective.  For instance (I picked this at random), the opening of his piece on Bob Draga: “Clarinetist Bob Draga is considered the consummate entertainer, having mastered the art of pleasing an audience with musical talent, classy appearance and entertaining repartee.”  That’s Bob, to the life.

One particularly moving episode in this book is the profile of drummer Joe Ascione — and his life with multiple sclerosis since 1997.  If Shaw had done nothing but allow Joe to speak for himself, JAZZ BEAT would still be well worth reading. Many fans come up to musicians at gigs, concerts, and festivals, and ask questions; it is reassuring to see that Lew Shaw has willingly shared his energies and research with us.  The 211-page book is nicely produced with many black-and-white photographs, and copies can be ordered here.

*Chet Jaeger, of the Night Blooming Jazzmen, told Shaw about playing in a Disneyland marching band when Dizzy Gillespie was also performing there, and his reaction: “I decided I would attend and try to learn something about modern jazz, but I gave up after a few numbers.  I always say that when I hit a bad note, everyone knows it’s a bad note. When Miles Davis hits a bad note, people will say, ‘Isn’t that creative.'”

MISTER B

Cary Ginell, author of a fine book on the Jazz Man Record Shop (reviewed here) and a rewarding biography of Cannonball Adderley (here) has produced another first-rate book in the same series: MR. B: THE LIFE AND MUSIC OF BILLY ECKSTINE (Hal Leonard, 228+ pages).  Ginell may turn out to be this generation’s model for jazz biography, for he doesn’t indulge in pathobiography (chronicling every time his subject is supposed to have left no tip for a waitperson or some other example of bad behavior) and he isn’t a secret Destroyer (appearing to write admiringly of the subject then deflating the Hero(ine) chapter after chapter).

His books are tidy, graceful, compact affairs — full of stories but never digressive, sticking to chronology but never mechanical.

Eckstine has been treated gingerly by the jazz community: yes, he was Earl Hines’ band vocalist, bringing the blues to a larger audience with JELLY, JELLY, then someone given credit for his “legendary” band featuring Dizzy, Bird, Fats Navarro, Art Blakey, and others . . . but once Eckstine comes to even greater prominence as an African-American balladeer (think of I APOLOGIZE), the jazz audience loses interest and the naughty word “commercialism” enters the dialogue.

Ginell doesn’t over-compensate, and he — unlike Mister B — doesn’t apologize, but he makes a serious case for Eckstine being one of the important figures in the slow struggle for White Americans to respect people of color.

One of Eckstine’s sons remembered, “Until the day he died, whenever he ordered a sandwich, he always separated the two pieces of bread and gently ran his fingers over the meat, because on a number of occasions while touring the South, they would send the band boy. . . to pick up food from a white restaurant. When they got the sandwiches, they would discover finely ground glass, or vermin feces mixed in with the tuna, chicken, egg, or potato salad.”  We also learn about the repercussions of a LIFE magazine photograph where Eckstine was captured amidst young White female fans — a horrifying example of racist attitudes in 1950. Stories such as that are invaluable, and make a book both readable and memorable, no matter who its subject might be.

The band business was difficult even when the enemy wasn’t trying to poison you so directly; Ed Eckstein also recalled that the critic Leonard Feather subtly attacked his father’s band because Eckstine refused to record Feather’s compositions.  Eckstine and Dizzy Gillespie created a parody — sung to the tune STORMY WEATHER, with these lyrics:

I know why, we can’t get a gig on Friday night, / Leonard Feather / Keeps on makin’ it hard for me to keep this band together, / Talkin’ shit about us all the time . . .  

We learn about the relationship between June Eckstine and the promising young Swedish clarinetist Stan Hasselgard; we learn of Eckstine’s close friendship with Dr. King, his devotion to his fans, his generosities.  And as for Eckstine’s apparent “selling-out,” he had this to say, “Some creeps said I ‘forsook’ jazz in order to be commercial. So I saw one of these creeps, a jazz critic, and I said, ‘What are you, mad at me because I want to take care of my family?  Is that what pisses you off? You want me to end up in a goddamn hotel room with a bottle of gin in my pocket and a needle in my arm, and let them discover me laying there? Then I’ll be immortal, I guess, to you . . . It ain’t going to work that way with me, man. I want to take care of my family and give them the things that I think they deserve.'”

And we learn that Eckstine’s last word was “Basie,” which should go some distance in supporting his deep feeling for jazz.

It’s an admirable book.  Although nearly everyone who worked with Eckstine is dead, Ginell has had the cooperation of the singer’s family and friends; he has done thorough research without allowing minutiae to overwhelm the narrative, and the book moves along at a fine 4 / 4 pace.  With rare photographs, as well.

Ginell’s work — and this series in general — is very fine, and these books fill needed spaces in jazz history.  Who’s next?

May your happiness increase!

Advertisements

VIC DICKENSON in LIFE

Some jazz musicians are garrulous, bubbly; Vic Dickenson barely spoke, and when he did address a comment to someone else on the stand, it was hard even for a practiced eavesdropper to catch what he was saying.  Often his words were punctuated by a laugh that would be difficult to describe. 

When Vic was photographed, because of the trombone’s intrusive size and shape, he often looked like a man at the mercy of his instrument, his brow furrowed.  Photographs also captured him looking angry — which was misleading, for he seemed the least contentious of men.

Here’s an uncredited photo study of Vic from LIFE magazine, presumably from the Fifties (I date it by his hairline).  It captures his seriousness, as well as some delightful reflections in the trombone’s bell, although it can’t summon up his sense of humor, his wonderful sound and sounds. 

For that, thankfully, we have the recordings he made over nearly half a century.

CHARLES PETERSON GOES TO A PARTY (1939)

Want to come to a party?  Duke Ellington, Dave Tough, Hot Lips Page, Billie Holiday, Ivie Anderson, Pee Wee Russell, Johnny Hodges, and Chu Berry will be there.

Unfortunately, I sent out the invitation a little late, because the party ended seventy years ago.  But Charles Peterson was there with his camera.  And it is through his generosity of spirit and his art that we can drop in now.   

In the middle Thirties, someone at LIFE Magazine thought of sending a reporter and cameraman to parties, perhaps in an attempt to offset grim news in Europe and at home, and the phrase “LIFE Goes To A Party” grew familiar — so much so that it became the title of a riffing original by Harry James, played by Benny Goodman at the 1938 Carnegie Hall concert.  Now, we’d call this phenomenon “cross-marketing,” but the music remains. 

In 1938, Peterson’s photographs of “Swing” musicians and fans had been a hit in LIFE.  A year later, in August, he, publicist Ernie Anderson, and their musician friends arranged a jam session party at the studio of Burris Jenkins, both for fun and to publicize the music.  The photographs never ran, but Don Peterson compiled a number of them for the book SWING ERA NEW YORK.    

Jenkins was a friend of Peterson’s, a then-famous sports cartoonist for the New York Journal-American and the Hearst newspapers nationwide, and an enthusiastic jazz fan.  The other journalist in these pictures is Hubbell Young, another friend and jazz fan, then an editor on the staff of Readers Digest.  The third civilian is an unidentified French jazz fan, possibly in the diplomatic service.  And (most familiar to jazz fans) there is twenty-year old Harry Lim, record producer, in whose honor the jam session was held.

Let’s start with the photograph at the top of this post.  Sister Rosetta Tharpe, gospel-jazz singer and guitarist, is at the piano, her white headband gleaming, her back to us.  To her right, in profile, is Duke, working out something on Rosetta’s guitar.  Behind Duke and to his right is Johnny Hodges, his face shadowy, his expression typically stony.  Along the back of the room are people not holding instruments: Hubbell Young and a woman in black; Young pensive, the woman more animated.  In front of them, the French guest drains the last drops from his soda or beer bottle.  In the middle, cornetist Rex Stewart seems to aim his cornet at the back of Harry Lim’s head; behind them, Eddie Condon (without guitar) seems to be grinning at something tenor saxophonist Chu Berry has just played.  The host, Burris Jenkins, holds his hands up in a telling gesture: is it “Too loud, for God’s sake”? or perhaps “I surrender, dear”? or even “All of you — get out of here now!”?  (The people who surround Jenkins remain elusive; they might have been guests, family, or neighbors: when you’re planning a loud party, you always invite the neighbors.)  To Chu’s right are two members of the ensemble named by Phyllis Condon — the Summa Cum Laude orchestra: bassist Clyde Newcombe and trumpeter Max Kaminsky, the shadows from trombonist J.C. Higginbotham’s horn are traced on Max’s face.  Bent backwards with the intensity he always brought to playing is Hot Lips Page; in the middle of the swirling mass of sound is Cozy Cole.   

It would be impossible to know, but I suspect that this ensemble is not embarked on something tidy and delicate, nothing like DON’T BLAME ME.  Rather I hear in my imagination  a Condon IMPROMPTU ENSEMBLE, rough and ready. 

Here’s what might be Peterson’s most famous photograph — the cover shot for SWING ERA NEW YORK.   In 1938 and after, there were record dates with a touch of novelty, featuring jazz musicians proficient on more than one instrument, either playing an instrument they weren’t associated with, or switching horns during the date.  One such recording has Bobby Hackett on guitar as well as cornet, Pete Brown on trumpet as well as alto saxophone.  Of course, Benny Carter had been doing all this on his own for years. 

Whether this photograph was Peterson’s idea or it came from the musicians themselves, we can’t tell, but everyone seems delighted to be playing around in this way.  Observant readers will note that it is a close-up of the collective photograph at top, although Peterson has also moved to a different vantage point. 

Sister Rosetta Tharpe has, for the moment, passed her guitar (with a resonator) to Duke Ellington, who is strumming a simple chord (guitarists out there can tell me what it is); both of them are grinning away.  But their hilarity is nothing compared to the rakish smile on the face of Cab Calloway at the piano.  Calloway, at times, considered himself a saxophonist, although members of the Missourians and later Chu Berry did not hold the same opinion — outspoken Chu, in fact, told his boss to put the saxophone back in the case permanently.  I don’t think that Duke and Cab are venturing into some of that “Chinese music” that would become the common language of jazz in just a few years. 

The smiles themselves are intriguing: Sister Rosetta and Cab are on the same exuberant wavelength; they would be looking into one another’s eyes if Cab wasn’t cautiously looking down at the keyboard to see what notes his fingers were hitting.  It was a hot August night, so most of the guests and players are in short sleeves; Ivie Anderson particulary stylish in her tailored suit, with striking buttons; she grins indulgently down at Cab’s chording.  The French guest, whom no one has yet identified, is smiling, but somewhat tentatively, as if he is watching and hearing something in translation.  But my eyes are drawn to cornetist Rex Stewart, who seems to be considering the collective merriment at some distance, even though he is standing close to the piano.  Was he wondering, “What are these fools doing?”  Perhaps he was overhearing a conversation out of Peterson’s camera range.  But his reticence, his near-skepticism, make him the still center of this particular turning world.  And although one’s eyes are intially drawn to the features the flashbulb illuminates: Cab’s grin, his white shirt, Duke’s forehead and cufflinks . . . it is to Rex that I find myself returning.  And to that suit jacket on top of the piano, part of the evening’s larger story. 

In this shot, we see Billie Holiday, perhaps twenty-four, her head cocked slightly, her expression serene and observant, her eyes half-closed.  Behind her, Hubbell Young and the woman in black are either greeting or saying goodbye to another woman wearing a whimsical summer straw hat.  Rex looks nearly malevolent with the effort of blowing; Harry Lim is leaning in closer to get a better look; Condon is dreamily happy but his eyes are only part-focused.  (Was it late in the evening?)  We do know it was hot in the room — the temperature as well as the music — if we look at Lips Page’s sweat-soaked, translucent shirt.  Cozy Cole made a specialty out of lengthy sustained press-roll solos; perhaps he is, shouting with pleasure, in the middle of one here, while the horns punch out encouraging chords.  

Slighty earlier in the evening (Lips still has his vest on).  Around the piani where presumably Dave Bowman is accompanying Lips are Harry Lim, Newcombe, the French guest, and a seriously chubby-looking Miss Holiday, smiling inwardly, her rings and bracelet and manicure evidence (although her dress is unimpressively plain) that she knew photographs were being taken for LIFE.  Those of us who know the iconic pictures Milt Hinton took of Billie at her last recording session — where she seems fiercely thin — will find these surprising.    

J.C. Higginbotham is telling Bud Freeman a story, to which Harry Lim is listening.  Bud is intent, but whether he is concentrating on what Dave Bowman is playing or on Higgy’s story is a mystery.  Eddie Condon, to the right of the piano, drink in hand, is listening deeply (he was deaf in one ear, which may account for his quizzical expression), and Clyde Newcombe is at his ease, off duty.  The man in dark glasses, a lock of hair falling over his forehead, is promoter and publicist Anderson.  The French guest tries to play Max Kaminsky’s trumpet (with what success?) and Max, displaced for the moment, takes a pair of sticks to the snare drum.  The center of this shot is once again Billie, still looking well-fed, happy, smiling at the amateur trumpeter as if he were her child, tenderly.  

From another angle: a perspiring Ellington listens appreciatively to what six brass are doing: from the left, Higgy, Brad Gowans, Juan Tizol, Lips Page, Rex, and Max (great trumpet and cornet players, as Whitney Balliett once wrote, are rarely tall men), and Harry Lim at the rear, looking younger than his twenty years.  I find myself drawn to the sideways glance Max is giving his colleagues, as in “Are we going to take another chorus or not?”

From the evidence of his singing and speaking, Lips Page was a wonderful actor and story-teller.  He never got the opportunity to fully show this side of his talents.  Jerry Newman, I once read, recorded Lips telling a tale of a hair-straightening product gone awry.  Here it’s obvious that he’s doing “the voices” by the curl of his lip, convulsing Ivie and Cab in the foreground, Higgy, Brad, and perhaps Rex close by in the background.

This shot seems as if it might have been posed — as if Peterson had asked the three reed players (Pee Wee having left for work) to stand together.  What sounds they would have made, each one with his immediately identifiable sonority!  The reflected explosion of the flash makes a small sun behind Chu’s head, and is it by accident or on purpose that the three hands are posed on the three horns in exactly the same plane?  (Hodges, incidentally, looks even more like a little boy in his father’s clothing than usual.)  Chu’s horn casts a shadow on his shirtfront.  Beneath Chu is a newspaper, perhaps, advertising CHINESE FIGURE LAMPS.  And it’s possible that the figure almost entirely cut off to the left is pianist Dave Bowman, if the bit of striped shirt is evidence.  You wouldn’t know that Chu had just gone through some painful dental work by this photograph. 

This is another celestial version of “gathering around the piano,” with Duke happily concentrating, Ivie passionately singing something delicate yet forceful — a quiet high note? — Harry Lim thoughtfully observing, the French guest somber in the background, Max and Higgy playing in support.  What amuses me most is Cab, who has of course positioned himself as close as possible to Ivie to drink in her voice . . . but he also instinctually seems to have placed himself to be sharply visible in every shot.   But what fascinates me are the four happy facial expressions seen here: Duke, musing, avuncular, affectionately considering both the piano and Ivie’s voice; Harry Lim, a star student, a good boy, observing, wondering, savoring; Ivie, perhaps reaching for a poignant turn of phrase, her face in a kind of controlled artistic ecstasy — which the light of Peterson’s flash illuminates, as if sanctifying the music pouring out; Cab, grinning hugely, part listening, part onstage.  What painter could do these faces justice?  

I love this photograph for its beauty and implied ideological statement.  Throught his long career, Bud Freeman never got the praise and atention he deserved: the closest thing to a wise, loving assessment of his work was published in Richard Sudhalter’s LOST CHORDS, after Bud had died.  But Freeman had several strikes against him — he was White and poised (thus going against the stereotype that jazz musicians had to be Black martyred primitives); he played “Dixieland” with Eddie Condon, which gave critics the opportunity to take him less seriously; his style required close listening to be grasped — on a superficial level, it might have sounded just like a series of bubbling scalar figures that could be applied to any composition in any context.  But he was a great ballad player and his style was HIS — no small accomplishment.  Here, he is somewhere in the middle of a phrase or perhaps ready to launch into one — his last improvisatory turn so novel, so refreshing, that the man at the piano — we remember him! — is laughing aloud with joy and surprise.  Sister Rosetta Tharpe is behind this duo, chatting over her beer, and I don’t know the other figures in this photo, except to note that the smile on the face of the man in suspenders is commentary enough on what he’s hearing. 

That celestial brass section again!  But it is very clear who is in charge here — Oran Thaddeus Page, leaning against the wall (I’ve been admiring Jenkins’s faux-three-dimensional wallpaper in every shot) both casual and intensely focused: it takes all one’s energy and strength to play as Lips did!  Rex, a champion trumpet-gladiator, is watching Lips with a cautious-potentially dangerous look in his eyes (“My chance will come in the next chorus and I’ll top what he just played, I will!”)  Higgy and Brad, for the moment content to be out of the way of those trumpets, are offering harmonies.  But it’s Lips the eye returns to: leaning backwards as if perched on the edge of the table with nothing particular to do, but electrically charged with his message, making the impossible, for a moment, look easy.   

This photograph, taken early in the evening (notice that Pee Wee, someone not highlighted in this session, has his suit on) has its own tale: best told by the enthusiastic Ernie Anderson, the man in dark glasses, holding a telephone for Mr. Russell to play into . . . ? 

LIFE Magazine had wanted a jam session.  So Eddie Condon and I cooked one up for them.  Duke Ellington happened to be playing in town so we got him and some of his players and mixed them in with Eddie’s Barefoot Mob.  LIFE sent their great music photographer, Charlie Peterson, who used to play the guitar in Rudy Vallee’s Connecticut Yankees.  We staged the rout in our friend Burris Jenkins’s pad.  He was Hearst’s star cartoonist, a terrific fan of jazz.  His place was the whole top floor of an ancient rookery on the West Side of Manhattan at the beginning of Riverside Drive, with panoramic views of the Hudson River.  This was a little study where the phone was. It was just off the dining room where there was a concert grand Steinway.  Duke was at the keyboard, Cozy Cole was swinging up a storm on his drums . . . and there were about twenty horns around the grand in full cry.  It was just what LIFE wanted and they didn’t want us to stop . . . .But it was eight o’clock.  Pee Wee was due at Nick’s at nine and Nick had promised to fire him for good if he was a minute late.  So I found the phone and called Nick.  I tried to explain but Nick wasn’t having any.  Then Pee Wee started to growl on his subtone clarinet into the telephone.  Nick loved that growl.  Finally Nick relented and gave permission for Pee Wee to miss the first set.  While all this was taking pace, Charlie Peterson came out of the drawing room with his camera to get some more film.  He saw the action and snapped this photo.  That’s Dave Bowman holding his scotch and soda.  He played the piano in the original Summa Cum Laude band and also made some famous sides with Sidney Bechet.  The trumpet is . . . . Lips Page.  And beside him, in the right hand corner, is Brad Gowanswho probably invented the valve trombone.   The party roared on for some hours.  Pee Wee didn’t get fired that night.”  (excerpted from STORYVILLE , 1 December 1990, no. 144) 

Aside from Pee Wee’s intent expression and substantial chin (prefiguring Robert DiNiro years later?) I notice the telephone book, bottom left: they had to look up the phone number of Nick’s to call its gruff owner, Nick Rongetti — making the story more plausible.    

Swing dancers take note!  Ivie’s anklet gleams; she and Cab are having themselves a time.  Condon is happily watching their feet from the left; Bud Freeman’s grin threatens to split his face in two on the right.  Brad, Rex, Max, and Lips are playing their parts; Juan Tizol, nattily dressed and looking just like Tommy Dorsey, is smiling.  Again, the tiny details make this even more delightful: Condon’s exuberantly striped socks; Cab and Ivie’s white shoes; the rippling material of her dress.  What step are they executing?  I hope some adept reader can tell us.  But the great musicians (including Louis and Dizzy) were champion dancers.    

And we come full circle: Sister Rosetta’s face nearly Asiatic; Duke’s delighted eyes fixed on her mouth; Lips thoughtfully admiring what he sees and hears; Cab, for once, rapt, his face not aimed at the camera.  

Two postscripts.  One concerns Dave Tough, then drummer in the Summa Cum Laude band and someone inextricably drawn to alcohol and terribly sensitive to its effects.  There’s a famously blurry Peterson photograph of a reeling, shaky Tough, his shirt drenched to near-transparency, his hand being held by Cozy Cole, who looks none too steady himself.  I would assume that Tough played early on, got helplessly drunk, and had to be sent home, leaving Cozy the sole percussionist.

And that suit jacket?  Condon, in his SCRAPBOOK OF JAZZ (assembled and edited by Hank O’Neal, one of jazz’s living benefactors) told the story that it was terribly hot in Jenkins’s apartment, as the photographs prove.  Ellington took his jacket off and hung it over the back of a chair, perhaps forgetting that in the pocket was money for the band’s pay.  When the jam session was over, the envelope was gone.  Music hath charms, but its redemptive powers might have limits.

As I’ve written before, how lucky we are that Charles Peterson was there, and that Don Peterson has not only preserved these photographs but has collected archival material to explain them: we owe him many thanks!  Now, if you will, close your eyes and imagine the music.

CHARLES PETERSON, JAZZ VISIONARY

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

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 magazinesDon 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.  

00000008

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.   

00000001

 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.   00000002

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.        

00000003

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. 

 00000006

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. 

EDDIE CONDON, 1945, TOWN HALL (by Gjon Mili)

condon-mmili-group

Had I a jazz time machine, the front row of Town Hall at this moment would be on the list of my musical Paradises.

From the left, courtesy of Gjon Mili and Ernie Anderson: Cozy Cole, perhaps James P. Johnson, Miff Mole, Benny Morton, Bobby Hackett, possibly Bill Coleman, Max Kaminsky, Muggsy Spanier, Ed Hall, PeeWee Russell, Ernie Caceres (on clarinet, too), Eddie Condon, leading the congregation, and Kansas Fields.  As I write this, the other musicians don’t reveal themselves, but I am sure my sharp-eyed readers will have educated surmises.

A SILENT PICTURE, RESOUNDING

pearl-primus

Gjon Mili.

His studio.

1943.

LIFE magazine.

Pearl Primus, Bobby Hackett, Lou McGarity, Ed Hall, Teddy Wilson, Johnny Williams, Sidney Catlett.

That might be bow-tied Cliff Jackson, absorbing it all.

The caption of the original picture says that this band was playing HONEYSUCKLE ROSE for Pearl Primus to dance to.

I can hear Catlett’s brushes, the stomp and scrape of Primus’s feet, the organ notes of the front line, Wilson’s chords, Williams’s deep woody sound.

If you look at this picture and don’t hear the band, something isn’t working.

GJON MILI’S 1943 JAM SESSION

gjon-mililipsteddymezzkansas-fieldsal-lucas

Thanks to jazz scholar and old friend David Weiner, I encountered this glorious photograph two nights ago.  Gjon Mili is known to most of us as the man behind the 1944 film JAMMIN’ THE BLUES, but he made his primary mark as a still photgrapher, shooting many pictures at jam sessions staged for LIFE.  Now that Google has made the picture archives of that long-lived weekly magazine available, we can all enjoy such lively archaeology.

If you can’t wait to see previously unknown pictures of Mildred Bailey, James P. Johnson, Eddie Condon and friends, Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, and others, the link to the site is http://images.google.com/hosted/life and I’ve already spent a good deal of time there.  It is fascinating not only for the jazz players, but for the glimpses of what is, for most of us, a lost world — where, as John Cheever once wrote, all the men wore hats.  If you enter the search term “jam session,” always a good idea, you will find 183 images including everyone from Gene Krupa to George Wettling to Dizzy Gillespie and Vic Dickenson.

The picture above is a wonderfully odd mix of players: the man at far left, holding a glass, might be drummer Zutty Singleton.  To his right, the altoist has been identified as a young Leo Parker.  Then there’s Hot Lips Page at the microphone.  Nearly hidden behind him is clarinetist Buster Bailey and bassist Al Lucas.  The drummer (in Navy uniform) is Kansas Fields, the pianist Teddy Wilson.  And, inescapably, in the back, clarinet at the ready, is Mezz Mezzrow.  Any guesses about the other players will be appreciated — and I’m indebted to the discussion already held by members of the jazz research group moderated by Michael Fitzgerald for the additional identifications above.  This jam session and one other was recorded for V-Disc, but legend has it that the recordings were rejected because the assembled multitudes were having a noisy good time.  Given these musicians, I would have shouted, too.

Here’s another from the same session:

gjon-mili-2

My long-time myopia holds me back here, but I see Eddie Heywood at the piano, Buster Bailey again, and the wondrous pairing of Dizzy Gillespie and Vic Dickenson, at a time before producers, clubowners, and other people had decided that one played “bebop” and the other one “Dixieland.”

Too many players to list them all (even if I recognized everyone) but I’ll bet that the musical atmosphere was both festive and creative when Mili clicked his shutter:

gjon-mili-3

How about Mezz Mezzrow, Muggsy Spanier, bassist Al Hall, Dizzy, and Duke?

gjon-mili-4

gjon-mili-6

Then, there’s a less ecumenical gathering: drummer George Wettling (who could play in anyone’s band), the irreplaceable PeeWee Russell, and a bassist who might well be Al Lucas once again.

gjon-mili-7

A rare early portrait of Vic Dickenson, with Heywood at the piano.

gjon-mili-8

Properly at the center of things — he could shape a jam session like no one else — is William Basie.  You know, the fellow from New Jersey?

I had to stop myself before posting more than a dozen images on this blog, although I will return to this site for uniquely posed evidence of the lost Golden Age, the Eden that very few people now alive got to visit.  Thank you, Gjon Mili!  And thank you, LIFE, which I once thought hopelessly middlebrow: these pictures prove me wrong.