In Print: Blue Notes in Black and White: Photography &Jazz

By Benjamin Cawthra (University of Chicago Press)
By Ken Waxman

Fats Navarro, face frozen in concentration as his upwards tilted trumpet appears to push through the blackness and billowing cigarette smoke; regal despite a feathered pill box hat, Ella Fitzgerald is caught in mid-note as a puckish Dizzy Gillespie casts her a sideways, enamored look, seeming oblivious to the scowl on the face of her then-husband Ray Brown; decked out in 10-gallon hat and holster plus a business suit Sonny Rollins stands defiantly in the desert.

These are just three of many famous photos of jazz musicians, taken respectively by Herman Leonard, William Gottlieb and William Claxton, that created the images that helped define the music and its practitioners over the years. This study by history professor Benjamin Cawthra analyses how the photographical portrayal of jazz players in magazines – both specialist and mass market – publicity and artistic photos and album covers reflected both its status as serious music as well as the role (s), its largely African-American innovators played in public consciousness.

Relaying on published memories, academic research first-hand interviews with many photographers active from the 1930s to the mid-1960s, Cawthra’s book is more concerned with sociology and social history than art appreciation. While he does discuss the components of many photos, they’re seen not as objects d’art, but as the most visible manifestations of the music.

For instance he shows how Life magazine, which in its heyday was more pervasive than the Internet, managed to alter its coverage from praising – and photographing – of the white ‘kings of swing”, to some acknowledgment of African-American innovation. But photo placement and accompanying text even of Gjon Mili’s famous integrated shots of a jam-session were still condescending, a posture redoubled when the magazine dealt with beret-wearing Dizzy Gillespie and other Beboppers.

Publications such as downbeat and Metronome making the transition from jazz as entertainment to jazz as an art form were slightly better. But column width meant that some of the most evocative photos by Gottlieb and Leonard, who was a master of light placement and composition, were only on display in jazz club, album covers or years later in large format photo books.

Cawthra’s chapters on the creation of Miles Davis’ photographic identity through his LP art and another on independent jazz labels’ use of album cover photos taken by the likes of Claxton (Contemporary), Francis Woolf (Blue Note) and Paul Weller (Riverside) describes another avenue for image-changing. From Round About Midnight (1956) his first Columbia LP, Davis was presented as the epitome cool, and with his camera sense and control was able to demand Black imagery (albeit mostly of attractive women) or himself as album art. The analysis of Sonny Rollins bare-shouldered portrait on 1958’s Freedom Suite as reflecting growing militancy and self-awareness is illuminating, but he seems to forget that no matter how sensitive the lensmen most pictures were there to fill space and sell the record.

What is disappointing about the volume is the author’s cursory treatment of jazz photography post-1964. Although Cawthra does illustrate Ray DeCarava’s frustration at being passed over for work because he insisted his photos reflect Black reality, does the neglect mean that once the music’s mass popularity waned, nothing remained to be studied? Furthermore by treating jazz – and by extension jazz photographic images – as exclusively American and tied to racial politics, he neglects the world-wide praxis which has altered the conception of the music over at least the past 30 years.

—For New York City Jazz Record April 2012