Tag Archives: SWING ERA NEW YORK

CHARLES PETERSON’S VISION

This is the second part of what I hope will be a long series on the jazz photography of Charles Peterson, who mystically saw the essence of jazz.  00000005

Here’s Peterson the documentary photographer — his casual, offhanded shot of a quartet led by Sidney Bechet, who is characteristically both in command and absolutely at the service of the music he is creating, the experience ecstatic and powerful.  What I find fascinating are the expressions on the faces of his sidemen: Cliff Jackson (whom I remember seeing in later photographs as white-haired) looks up at the Master to see where the currents of music are going; Eddie Dougherty, a wonderful and little-known Brooklyn-born drummer, seems anxious, although he may have only been caught in mid-comment, and Wellman Braud is quietly gleeful, rocking in rhythm.  They seem small objects drawn into Bechet’s vortex.  The photo suggests that any cohesive jazz group forms itself into a unit, but each musician retains his or her essential personality, and in this picture we see the quiet tension between the Selves and the Community.  And this photo brings up another of Peterson’s unintended gifts to us: how many people ever were fortunate enough to be at the Mimo Club in Harlem to hear this quartet, much less at this moment on February 16, 1942?  But — with a substantial record collection, some memory and imagination — we can invent the music that this band is creating. 

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This is a new split-second capture from a famous jazz session and photo shoot: the Commodore Records session of April 20, 1939, where Billie Holiday recorded STRANGE FRUIT, YESTERDAYS, I GOTTA RIGHT TO SING THE BLUES, and FINE AND MELLOW.  The musicians are bassist Johnny Williams, trumpeter Frank Newton, altoist Stanley Payne, and tenorist Kenneth Hollon.  Billie is holding a long-noted syllable; is it the “Yes” in YESTERDAYS?  And she is very young, very beautiful, also giving herself up to the music, her hands folded, her eyes almost-shut, Peterson’s lighting capturing her mouth, chin, and throat.  What distinguishes this portrait from others at this session is Billie’s lovely and obviously-treasured fur coat.  I find it ironic, seventy years after the session, that there is such a gap between Billie in her fur — which she deserved more than anyone — and the material she sings with such deep emotion.  One song, most famous, describes lynchings in the South; another describes a “fine and mellow” lover who doesn’t treat his woman well; a third and fourth describe bygone happinesses, all gone now, and the blues one sings when one’s lover has left.  And Billie sang these four songs as if her heart would break . . . wearing that fur coat.  Later in the session, of course, she got warm and took it off.  And no doubt the irony didn’t occur to her and she would have laughed it off if someone pointed it out, “Lady, you look too good to be singing those blues!”00000010

Hard at work is all I can say.  The caption states that this is the Summa Cum Laude band — led in part by Bud Freeman, arrangements by valve-trombonist Brad Gowans — performing at Nick’s in December 1938.  The band must be negotiating some serious ensemble passage, for they all look so intent.  Bassist Clyde Newcome stares out into space, as does Pee Wee Russell; Gowans and Freeman, especially Brad, are watching the band warily, or perhaps Brad is reading the music off the stand in the center.  I would guess that the drummer is Al Sidell, but I would hope that it is Stan King* — drummers shuttled in and out of this band.  The rather somber effect of this picture suggests to me that the band is playing one of its medleys of current hits (you can hear them on the airshots in 1939-40 from Chicago’s Panther Room at the Hotel Sherman . . . grown men of this artistic stature playing SIERRA SUE, but what can I say?)  Serious business indeed.  (In his later comment, Mike Burgevin points out that I left out Max Kaminsky.  How did I do this?)  *Don Peterson confirmed that the drummer is indeed Stan King — one of jazz’s entirely forgotten men. 

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This photo lets me imagine a time before I was born when James P. Johnson could wear his pin-stripe suit and play the piano, which is what he was meant to do.  It was taken in 1946, on a “Jazz on the River” cruise organized by Rudi Blesh and Art Hodes to go up and down the Hudson River.  From left, there’s the hand of an unidentified bassist, James P., Baby Dodds, Marty Marsala on trumpet (with the appropriate handkerchief) and guitarist Danny Barker — some of the same crew who turned up on the THIS IS JAZZ radio broadcasts.   But my secret pleasure in this photograph comes from the pretty woman whose head seems (although much smaller) in the same plane as James P.’s.  She is tidily dressed; her cardigan, pulled together at the collar, reveals a neat floral blouse beneath; we sense that she wears a neat wool skirt.  Her eyeglasses gleam in Peterson’s flashbulb; her hair is demure; her modest lipstick is in place.  Her hands are decorously in her lap.  Yet it’s clear — although she is prim, restrained, the last person to whoop and knock over her highball — that she is deeply pleased by what she hears.  As much as Bechet or James P., she is in the grip of the music, wanting it to go on forever. 

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Berenice Abbott told Hank O’Neal that most of photography was having the patience to wait for the right moment.  I’ll end this series with a superbly right moment — with only two musicians, Eddie Condon and Bobby Hackett, playing at the “Friday Club” jam sessions held at the Park Lane Hotel in Manhattan — this one on February 17, 1939.  Hackett here is much as I remember him, up close, in 1972: a small, slender man, neatly dressed, dark eyebrows, thin wrists with black hair on them.  Here he is all of 24, and so small that while standing he is only inches taller than Condon, sitting.  The expression on his face might be a smile or it might be that he is working hard to bring off a particular nuanced phrase.  But our attention is drawn to Condon, also young and healthy.  Condon called Hackett “The Impostor,” because — with his peculiarly ornate wit, he said “Nobody can be that good.”  The teasing compliment almost slips away, but you get the point.  What is more important in this picture — more than Condon’s neat attire — is his grin, his head turned in delight and pleasure and admiration towards Hackett, who is clearly playing something marvelous, inimitable, lovely.  Condon is astonished by what he’s hearing, but he’s expected no less from Bobby.  This photograph captures the joy (and the labor) of this music better than any prose. 

Thank you, Charles Peterson!

P.S.  It didn’t surprise me that Peterson’s offspring were particularly talented in music, film, and writing.  His daughter, Karen Yochim, a successful country-and-western songwriter, lives in Louisiana, has written extensively about Cajun culture for newspapers and magazines — and is branching out as a crime novelist.  Peterson’s granddaughter Schascle “Twinkle” Yochim (her name is Cajun, pronounced “Suh-Shell”) is a professional singer with several CDs, concentrating on soul, rock, and to a limited extent, country-and-western. She’s also a songwriter, with songs accepted in feature films currently in production.  

After a career in the Navy, Peterson’s son, Don, worked for the Navy Department in Washington, DC, doing motion picture & television scriptwriting.  Don also wrote scripts for many film and television productions.  He retired in 1986 and now concentrates on marketing his father’s photographic legacy, most lavishly accessible in the book SWING ERA NEW YORK.

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.  

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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.   

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 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.        

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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. 

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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. 

FATS WALLER AT CARNEGIE HALL, 1942 (and 1944)

Adventures in jazz discography follow.

Because my friend Agustin Perez (proprietor of the wonderful blog “Mule Walk & Jazz Talk,” often devoted to stride piano) asked me for some information, I’ve been thinking a great deal about Fats Waller’s uneven Carnegie Hall concert of 1942.  And my very hip readers are on the same wavelength, because two people searching for “Fats Waller,” “Carnegie Hall,” “lost acetates,” found this blog.

So — as a brief respite from grading student essays — let me share my ruminations on this subject and a related one — the 1944 Memorial Concert.

fats-jpegIf ever anyone deserved his own concert, it would have been Fats — for his compositions, his joyous playing and singing, his ability to become an entire orchestra at the piano, to say nothing of the way he could drive a band.  And the 1942 Carnegie Hall concert (an idea of Ernie Anderson’s) would have been splendid except for Fats’s nervousness and the resulting over-imbibing.

Eddie Condon recalled that the second half of the concert was nearly disastrous, with Fats unable to free himself from “Summertime.”  (Condon’s recollections come from his WE CALLED IT MUSIC, and the later EDDIE CONDON’S SCRAPBOOK OF JAZZ, and there are some comments — and photographs by Charles Peterson — in the book of Peterson’s photographs, SWING ERA NEW YORK.  Several of them show Fats getting dressed and are thus scarily irreplaceable.)

I don’t think that I need recordings of Fats imprisoned in “Summertime,” but two tantalizing pieces of recorded evidence do remain, both impressive.

One is a duet for Fats and Lips Page, an unbeatable idea, playing the blues both slow and fast.  I never think of Fats as a compelling blues player, but he is in splendid form alongside Lips, and the duet ends too soon . . . about an hour too soon for my taste.  It was originally issued on a French bootleg lp (Palm Club) and an American one (Radiola) and most recently was dropped into the French Neatwork CD of Lips Page alternate takes, probably out of print.

The other comes from the closing jam session, and is predictably HONEYSUCKLE ROSE, with Max Kaminsky, Bud Freeman, PeeWee Russell, Condon, John Kirby, and Gene Krupa — issued circa 1974 on the very first Jazz Archives lp (one of the many labels invented by Jerry Valburn), CHICAGO STYLE.  This suggests that Valburn, who had resources beyond my imagination and a phenomenal jazz collection — his Ellington collection is now in the Library of Congress — had managed to acquire the acetates of the concert.  From whom, from whence, I cannot say.

What interests me even more is both Waller and Valburn-related: music recorded at the 1944 Waller Memorial Concert.  One track, a rather lopsided LADY BE GOOD by the “Mezz Mezzrow Sextet,” turned up on a Valburn collection devoted to Ben Webster.  Ben is there for sure, alongside a piping Mezz and an unidentified tenor player, possibly Gene Sedric, a pianist who paddles away in the background rather mechanically, Sidney Catlett doing the best he could, and a trombonist mis-identified as Dicky Wells who clearly is Trummy Young.

Others who appeared at the concert were James P. Johnson, Art Hodes, and Frank Newton — and, as readers of this blog know, the possibility of hearing some otherwise unknown Newton would make my year.  Valburn also issued two songs from the concert performed by a Teddy Wilson sextet — HONEYSUCKLE ROSE, again, and a blues called GET THE MOP, on a Lips Page anthology full of errors, famously.  First, the record was called “Play the Blues in B,” which few musicians would think of doing — those blues were audibly in the most common key of Bb; Lips didn’t play with the Wilson group (Emmett Berry, Benny Morton, Ed Hall, Wilson, Al Hall, and Catlett), and the final track on the recording had Paul Quinichette identified as Lester Young even though Lips hailed his tenor player by name.   Such things might not seem important to those beyond the pale, but they received a good deal of attention from the faithful.  Valburn also issued an AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’ by the whole Basie band — including the real Lester — on a Lester compilation on his “Everybody’s” label.

Where’s the rest of this music?  Could we hear it now?  Please?