The photographs Charles Peterson took offer magic windows into places and emotions we would otherwise never experience. Here’s what he captured on a truly magical afternoon in 1942, shared with us through the generosity of his son, Don.
It’s a jam session — hardly unusual for Peterson — but this is no ordinary gathering.
This jam session didn’t take place at some smoky Fifty-Second Street club or a hotel ballroom, but at the Walt Whitman School where Don was a fifth-grade student. Whitman was an extremely forward-looking school, whose students got to see foreign films, adventurous art, and more. So when Charles Peterson suggested that some of his musician friends might come down and play for the kids, none of the administrators raised a worried eyebrow.
Peterson, I assume, had more than one motive — staging a jam session with the finest musicians he knew would bring pleasure to everyone, and the photographs that resulted might very well be charming enough (Hot Jazz in the Schoolroom; Hot Jazz Goes to School) that a major magazine would want to buy them. Hot jazz, good publicity for the musicians, possibly a paying gig for the photographer. Considering that Eddie Condon and friends — including Joe Sullivan and Pee Wee Russell, depicted below — were also playing odd daytime gigs in Lord and Taylor’s for the holiday shoppers, any way to let people know about the gospel of Hot would have been welcome.
I’m sure that Peterson asked his friend Eddie to get the musicians together. And it’s a tribute to how much these men would have looked forward to playing alongside one another that they woke up early for a non-paying gig, no drinks and nothing to smoke in sight. For the kiddies!
To begin: Max Kaminsky, Brad Gowans, Pee Wee Russell, Joe Sullivan, Eddie Condon, Zutty Singleton, perhaps a group Condon had assembled for nighttime work at Nick’s in Greenwich Village:
The band first: Sullivan is poised to launch a powerful right-hand chord, perhaps one of his ringing, thunderous octaves; Zutty is bent attentively over the cymbal, his face both serious and contented. Pee Wee is, for once, not caught in brave-explorer anguish. Kaminsky is watching Gowans, who is intent, and Condon is gleefully vocalizing (exhorting, encouraging) and grinning. In fact, Condon looks even more gleeful than usual: his face looks cherubic, transported, the same age as the students!
Don pointed out — with amusement — the little boy on the left who is, for the moment, sorry that he has pushed his way into the front row, and is now holding his hands over his ears against the volume.
But there’s more here. The settling is so atypical — to find these musicians in a large, well-ornamented room (note the plaster decorations on the wall) — is so far from the usual “night club” world of smoke and darkness, that it lends this photo a Magritte aura, as if two worlds have been superimposed on one another, peacefully but oddly. The effect is intensified when we see those boys and girls, their school clothes all quite neat, except for one little boy in the rear who seems to have gotten the seat of his trousers dirty from his shoes. Even from the rear, they look so beautifully-tended, as if they should be singing Christmas carols rather than hearing this band explore SOMEDAY SWEETHEART.
One other photographic digression. I don’t know the speed of Peterson’s exposure, but think it might have been longer than we are accustomed to in this century. So did he often opt to photograph the musicians when they were holding whole notes (or “footballs”) behind a soloist, expecting that they would be holding still? I wonder.
Now to the full band. If you asked Bobby Hackett if he would like to play his horn alongside his idol, he wouldn’t have had to think about his answer. And when Louis had a choice (say, at the 1970 Newport Jazz Festival tribute to him which had what seemed like a dozen trumpeters ready to accompany him), he only wanted “little Bobby Hackett,” who found those “pretty notes,” every time.
This famous shot has sometimes been cropped because of its imperfections, such as the soft focus on Gowans and Hackett, and the lighting making Louis’s very sharp suit look just this side of garish. But the overall effect suggests that Louis is divine or at least from another planet, and has brought his own luminescence with him — a jazz god who has decided to play at being a mortal for an afternoon. And the viewer’s eye is inextricably drawn to the glowing bell of Louis’s horn — from whence all good things came.
(It is possible that the group shot below was taken before the close-up, but I trust my readers will not object excessively.)
Can you imagine the sound coming from that now-crowded bandstand? Its embodiment is on the face of the smiling little girl, whose profile we see at the right.
I would draw your attention to four faces in this photograph. Louis is hitting a high note or making a point with all the sincere dramatic eloquence he could command. Head thrown back with emotion, his neck full of energy, his hand on his heart. And he’s delightedly making the music, with the music, and wholly IN the music. Look at how lovingly and happily Zutty’s face echoes Louis’s — they went all the way back and had been the best of friends two decades earlier. Hackett might be taking a breath, but it looks as if he’s ready to laugh with pure joy — as if he can’t contain himself. And here we see the grown-ups. Because this was a program for the boys and girls, the adults had to stay off to the side, but I delight in the woman who is to the extreme left, her grin perilously broad, having the time of her life. (And the older woman who is standing behind her is almost as transported.)
In the late Bob Hilbert’s biography of Pee Wee Russell, I found this: “Another special date was a benefit at the “progressive” Walt Whitman School in New York in which the guest of honor was Louis Armstrong. Louis jammed with the Condon band, but the trumpeter drew the line at singing the blues because, as he explained, the only ones he could remember were dirty and not fit for the kids. For more than an hour, the band thrilled the students and an overflow crowd of adults as well” (141).
Maybe Louis reached back to 1936 and sang PENNIES FROM HEAVEN for the kids, with its optimistic message, or reminded them that “When you’re smiling, the whole world smiles with you!”
This photograph, not irrelevantly, reaches forward to Nina Leen’s shots of Louis at the Eddie Condon Floor Show, telling the story of THE THREE BEARS to the children, and the famous shot of Louis in Corona, on the porch, with two little boys, one of whom is paying homage to his friend and idol with a plastic toy trumpet. Maybe some jazz musicians are hard-pressed to be ideal parents, but Louis deserved a troop of children of his own. Alas.
Speaking of children: during a break between numbers, we find Pee Wee as kindly uncle (his usual nature), perhaps responding to the little girl at the bottom right who is smiling). Louis is holding court, telling a story — look at Hackett’s face! Condon is watching everything.
But my attention is always drawn to the little girl in the front row who has turned her head and is clearly saying something defensive or offensive to the child near her. Those of us who recall elementary school or have taught it know that expression well. It’s trouble, and whether it’s “Sally stepped on my dress!” or “Make Timmy stop pulling my hair!” It doesn’t bode well. But chaos threatens only when the music isn’t playing. Music hath charms, we know . . .
Harmony reigns over the land. That same little girl is now transfixed by the sound of Louis’s horn, its bell less than two feet from her face. She doesn’t need to clap her hands over her ears. If she could have gotten closer, she would have, for she knows what she’s hearing!
None of the musicians in this photograph are alive (Max Kaminsky left us in 1994) and most of those boys and girls would be in their eighties now . . . but if any of them see these photographs, I would give a great deal to hear their memories of that afternoon.
As I’ve written, part of the essential charm of these photographs is that Peterson took his camera to places most of us never got to visit. I wasn’t born in 1942, and if you count up the people in this room, perhaps fifty mortals were able to have this experience. And it seems to me that the Walt Whitman School is no longer in existence. So these photos are gifts to us, welcoming us into worlds now long gone. But Peterson’s gift was also in what he saw and captured for us. These are living examples of Peterson’s most generous art.