Even though it is an ancient cliche, we are known by the company we keep, and so I think that the late Jesse King must have been someone remarkable.
I know nothing about her except what I’ve been told — that she was located in Richmond, Virginia. But photographs from her estate just recently turned up on Ebay (sorry, the bidding is over, so you missed your chance to squander the grocery money on these unique artifacts). Not just snapshots of the cabin at Schroon Lake or of the kids cavorting — but Thirties studio photographs of some of the world’s most remarkable musicians — AUTOGRAPHED to Jesse.
Here they are in roughly alphabetical order:
A very slender and dapper Henry “Red” Allen in a very hip suit with what looks like the world’s longest trumpet. The pose isn’t exactly, “Look, Ma, no hands!” but it comes close. “I can hit those high notes with one hand tied behind my back,” it suggests.”
Water damage or not, this is still Mr. Strong. And he threatens to burst out of this tiny picture (really an eight-by-ten).
Edward Kennedy Ellington, sharp as a tack and a long way from “Soda Fountain Rag.”
“A fellow named Handy, with a band you should hear.”
Who remembers Edgar Hayes? I certainly do.
This one was signed “Johnnie,” which initially mystified the seller. But WE know who these fellows are: how about the Ellington reed section pre-Ben Webster, in a photograph I had never seen before. (Barney Bigard, Otto Hardwicke, Hodges, and Harry Carney.) Postscript: I wanted this one for my wall and was outbid, which is fine.
Here’s Claude Hopkins and his alter ego, both dressed for success.
Harlan Lattimore, a sweet singer who worked and recorded with many classic big bands. Perhaps his portrait is the largest here because of that nifty cap.
Don Redman, so influential and so under-acknowledged.
Luis Russell was not a thrilling pianist. I doubt he would have lasted long among the striders uptown. But his bands were very fine: his 1929-30 group can still melt your earbuds.
And something quite astonishing — a portrait of Chick Webb! Helen Oakley Dance told the story of asking Chick to autograph a photo and his saying, shyly, “Oh, my secretary will sign it for you. She has such beautiful handwriting.” Finally, Helen prevailed on Chick to sign his name himself. The photograph here is too small to see if it is “authentic” by the standards of autograph collectors, but it’s close enough for me.
Does anyone recognize this trumpeter?
This photo (inscribed to his honey) is signed “Fitz,” which is quite mysterious — although if I had a world-class magnifying glass, there is a slim chance that All might be Revealed. Which one is Fitz?
Then there are “The Three Dukes,” clearly to the manor born.
One photograph eluded me — of the bandleader Baron Lee — but the others suggest what riches are in trunks and attics. But who was Jesse King?
And a larger question. I understand the collacting urge, to have the rarities for oneself. But I also wonder if these delicious photographs shouldn’t have ended up in a museum where everyone could see them. Perhaps they will someday, but the waywardness of people’s heirs and the fragility of paper make this unlikely. And perhaps it is right not to put too much emphasis on mere objects, even if they have been touched by Red Allen or Johnny Hodges.
But what if Ebay is our new museum, and these objects have stopped being accessible once they are bought? I would find that troubling. “Art for sale! Get your red-hot art! Peanuts, popcorn, relics!” Well, at least we have gotten an opportunity to see these photographs. That is more than I would have expected.