Tag Archives: portrait photography

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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“DO YOU LIKE JAZZ?”

I’ve decided to post a photograph of myself — but with an explanation.

The Beloved (as a special gift to me) commissioned Lorna Sass, photographer and transformational life-coach, to do a photo shoot.  The rather serious portrait above is the result, taken in Central Park, with your blogger in full outdoor regalia.  (We attempted photos of me in my natural habitat: in darkness with a video camera obscuring half my face, but the results were less successful.)

Why am I showing off in this fashion? 

For me, some of the deepest rewards of the hours I spend on this blog have been my getting to meet kindred souls at a jazz gig. 

Politely, they ask, “Excuse me, are you JAZZ LIVES?”  “Are you that person who comes here all the time and posts things on a blog?”

These inquiries give me great pleasure — not for ego alone, but for the chance to meet someone new who shares my feelings for the music and the musicians.  I get to talk with someone who loves the way Joel Forbes plays the blues, who gets excited when talking about Bill Savory’s discs. 

And my sense of a large, living, friendly jazz community is renewed and enhanced in the most warm way. 

I don’t go home thinking, “The music I love will not survive”; rather, I think, “Lucy or Jerome or X or Y is a wonderful person, and I’ve made a new friend who shares my essential values.  We are not so alone!”

I would have stayed undercover except for a sweetly amusing incident that happened two nights ago at a Brooklyn beer garden that featured, for that night, a wonderful band and singer, with enthusiastic swing dancers enjoying themselves.  One pair of dancers was particularly sinuous and expert, in close physical harmony, and I couldn’t stop watching them even as a video-recorded the music. 

At a set break, I walked over to compliment them.  And the young woman (a wonderful dancer), having noted me at the bar with my videocamera, hearing my enthusiasm, asked very kindly, “Do you like jazz?” 

I restrained any impulses to say, “Do bears like honey?” or the like.  I grinned at the couple, took out my card, and presented it to her.  “Oh!” she said, “I follow your blog!” 

The interchange was very nice, but it made me think that perhaps I should come out into the public eye just a few tentative steps more.  It might say something about my nature that I took to the woods to do so, but you are free to draw your own conclusions. 

I don’t want more attention; in fact, I want to be unobtrusive and let the musicians shine — but I thought that emerging in this way wouldn’t (as the Sage Condon said) do anyone any harm.