Tag Archives: Nat Singerman

NAT HAD GOOD TASTE AND A CAMERA, 1949-55

OPEN PANDORA’S BOX, by Sofia Wellman

The eBay treasure chest is overflowing with delights, and occasionally the treasures are startling.  I’ve come to expect autographed records and photographs and concert programs, as well as little scraps of paper cut from someone’s autograph book.  There’s been a recent flurry of checks — bearing the signature of an otherwise obscure musician on the back as the necessary endorsement.  And more, some of it dross.

I am always slightly ambivalent about the rarities coming to light.  On one hand, what a joy to see relics and artifacts that one never knew existed.  On the other, I feel melancholy that these offerings are (plausibly) because collectors age and die, need money, and their heirs are understandably eager to convert the fan’s collection into something more useful at the mall.  But it’s all just objects, and they go from one hand to another: better this than the recycling bin.

To get to the point: I found on eBay this morning a trove of one-of-a-kind color slides of jazz musicians in performance, captured between 1949 and 1955 in Cleveland and Chicago, possibly elsewhere.  Each is offered for $50 or the best offer, and here is the link.  An explanation is here: the slides were from the collection of photographer Nat Singerman.  (As a caveat: I have no idea of the process by which these items came to be offered for sale, so if the provenance is murky, I plead ignorance.)

The musicians Nat photographed are (in no order of merit): Miff Mole, Buddy Rich, Earl Hines, Oscar Peterson, Patti Page, Art Hodes, Jonah Jones, Louis Jordan, Jim Robinson, J.C. Higginbotham, Eddie Heywood, Darnell Howard, Lee Collins, Louis Prima, Flip Phillips, Oscar Pettiford, Freddie Moore, Red Norvo, Tal Farlow, Charles Mingus, Pee Wee Hunt, Juanita Hall.  They were caught in action at clubs, the State Theatre in Cleveland, a rib restaurant, and elsewhere.  (Flip, Rich, and others may have been on a JATP tour.)  It’s a powerful reminder of just how much live music there was in this country.  Here are a few samples, but go see for yourselves before they are all purchased.  As some anonymous pitchman once said, “When they’re gone, they’re gone!”  I am not involved in this beyond this blogpost: I spent the February budget for such things on photographs of Vic Dickenson and Sidney Catlett.

J.C. Higginbotham and “Chuck” at the Pinwheel Cafe, 1949, as Nat’s careful label shows:

Darnell Howard, with Lee Collins in the background, presumably at the BeeHive in 1949:

and a shot of the full front line, with Miff Mole (the rhythm section may have had Don Ewell on piano):

Flip Phillips, at Cleveland’s State Theatre in 1949:

Jonah Jones, posing outside the Cab Calloway band bus, parked at the Circle Theatre in Cleveland, October 1951:

Tal Farlow, Red Norvo, Charles Mingus, Chicago, July 1951:

Oscar Pettiford, Loop Lounge, Cleveland, September 1955.  Thanks to Loren Schoenberg, we have a winner — that’s Ben Webster to the right:

The rest you’ll have to find for yourselves.  But what a cache of marvels, and the treasure chest seems bottomless.  And the imagined soundtracks reverberate gloriously.

May your happiness increase!

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FATS HAS A CONE. SIDNEY EATS ON THE BUS. WE HAVE SEVERAL MYSTERIES.

In the mood for a snack?

Two photographic treasures.  The first, presented by Hugo Dusk, shows Fats Waller holding — not eating — an ice-cream cone.  Hugo explains, “On the boardwalk in Old Orchard Beach, Maine, where Fats Waller was appearing at the Old Orchard Pier 6th September 1941.”

It’s clearly a posed shot.  The ice cream is untouched and not melting, perilously close to Fats’ sweater.  The young lady behind the counter looks as if her smile is genuine, although we note her demurely folded hands. Was it not possible or desirable to show her handing “a Negro” anything?  I should also note that this was a summer resort.  The weather forecast for September 2017 at Old Orchard Beach has temperatures reaching 80, so the season was not over.  Because of that, but we have Fats in less formal garb — but the creases on his shirt sleeves suggest that there is a temporarily discarded suit jacket just out of range.

To return for just a moment to the treacherous chronicle of race politics in 1941, this photograph was possible because Fats Waller was a star.  True, a counter separates the two participants: they are not putting two straws into a malted, but stardom, at least for a newspaper photograph, allowed a man of color certain privileges.  There is no FOR COLORED ONLY sign here, and we are led to assume, for a moment, that people of all races could come to Old Orchard Beach and enjoy themselves.  I hope it was true.  But I wonder that what looks like the main street of this resort was The White Way.

And the appropriate soundtrack, free from race hatreds:

The second photograph, still for sale on eBay for $375, comes from the collection of Cleveland, Ohio, photographer Nat Singerman.  Here is the link.  It is a candid shot of three members of Louis Armstrong’s All-Stars, standing outside their (unheated) tour bus: string bassist Arvell Shaw, clarinetist Barney Bigard, and drummer Sidney Catlett. Sidney was with the band 1947-1949, so we know the time frame, although my assigning the location to Cleveland is only a guess.

The poses are unrehearsed: Arvell is buttoning or unbuttoning his topcoat; Barney leans back with an inscrutable expression beneath his beautiful hat; Sidney is caught in mid-sentence and mid-gesture, possibly speaking to Nat or to someone on the bus.  The eBay seller annotates his prize, “Unusual photograph of jazz greats . . . signed in white ink over the image by Bigard and Shaw. 10 x 8 inches. Tape remnants along the left edge, else fine.  From the collection of Nat Singerman, a professional photographer and co-owner of Character Arts Photo Studio in Cleveland, Ohio during the 1940’s and 1950’s. During this period he met and befriended many jazz legends who performed at clubs in and around Cleveland and Chicago. He took many photographs of performances as well as numerous candid shots taken backstage. He also hosted jam sessions and dinners at his studio where other images from the archive were shot.”

However, there might be some controversy over the photographer. In September 2013, The New York Times ran color shots of Billie Holiday and identified the photographer as Nat Singerman, earning these responses on a jazz blog:

These are indeed, wonderful photographs. Unfortunately, the photographer has been misidentified. They were taken by Nat’s brother, Harvey Singerman, and my own grandmother, Elaine Pinzone, both of whom worked at Character Arts Studio in Cleveland, Ohio. Arrangements are currently being made with The New York Times to correct the mistake.

and the next day, Ms. Garner continued:

I would very much appreciate you removing his name while we negotiate with The Times to correct this travesty.

Ms. Garner continued — on her own blog — to vehemently state that Nat took none of the photos and had stolen credit from Harvey and Elaine (the latter, 1914-1976, if the Social Security records are correct).

I can’t delve deeper into that: however, from the signatures on the photograph, it’s clear that Nat brought the developed photograph to wherever Arvell and Barney were playing, and asked them to autograph it to him.  I suspect that the musicians would not have said, “Hey, Nat!  Where are Harvey and Elaine?”

But back to my chosen subject.

It would be very easy to draw from this photograph a moral about those same race relations: if you were African-American but not a star in Fats Waller’s league, there might be few places that would serve you dinner.  I imagine Sidney being turned away from a restaurant — even in Cleveland, Ohio — because of his skin color.  Or that he could buy food from the kitchen but couldn’t eat it there. But other interpretations must be considered.

After Sidney’s death, a number of musicians (Louis and the bassist John Simmons come to mind) spoke of how he was often late — having too good a time — so that might explain why he is the only one in the photograph who appears to not have eaten.  Too, the All-Stars covered many miles between gigs on that bus, so the road manager, “Frenchy,” might have said, “You have ten minutes to get some food, and if you’re not back, the _______ bus is leaving without you.”

A mystery too large to solve, especially at this distance in time.  I hope the dinner in Sidney’s covered dish was memorable, just as I hope that Fats got to enjoy his ice cream before it melted.

In honor of those hopes, the appropriate soundtrack here (could it be otherwise?) is the blues from the Armstrong All-Stars’ concert at Boston’s Symphony Hall, featuring Sidney and called STEAK FACE.  (Of course, for those in the know, that sobriquet refers to “General,” Louis’ Boston terrier, not Sid.) You’ll hear Sidney, Barney, Arvell, Louis, Dick Cary, and Jack Teagarden:

Thanks to David Fletcher, who, whether he knows it or not, has encouraged me to dig into such questions with the energy of a terrier puppy destroying a couch.

May your happiness increase!