More eloquently than the written word—including even the prose of the great Ralph Ellison or the poetry of the legendary Langston Hughes—poetically expressive black-and-white photographs taken by gifted jazz photographers can capture the elusive but soulful essence of the music and its cradle-to-the-grave love affair with life.
Two artists from divergent backgrounds and radically different lens aesthetics, the iconic photographer Lee Friedlander and the renowned jazz bassist Milt Hinton freeze-frame this life-affirming spirit with their exceptional, insightful jazz images. As different as they may be stylistically, their intimate, revealing portraits of musicians and their daily life surroundings take you inside the jazz world, through its looking glass surface and into the soul of the music itself.
Friedlander, an “insider” in the art gallery world, was initially, as a non-musician, an “outsider” in the jazz world. An innovative photographer with an unerring eye for creating original, evocative portraits of everyday life in America, he also became a trusted insider in the jazz world while photographing the scene in New Orleans from 1957 to 1994.
Hinton, a venerable jazz figure who died at 90 in 2000, was the ultimate jazz world “insider” with unlimited access to the scene as a ubiquitous sideman, who from 1936 to 1999 took many thousands of photographs of friends and colleagues. His behind-the-scenes portraits are brilliant, in-the-moment character studies and reflections on the jazz life.
With his camera seemingly as much a presence as his double bass, the genial, gregarious bassist/photographer became a welcome, all-seeing eye graced with a pitch-perfect feel for composition and a flawless sense of time for capturing the fleeting moment.
In a marvelous marriage of this seemingly odd couple whose inextricable common bond is their love for jazz, Yale University Art Gallery presents “Jazz Lives: The Photographs of Lee Friedlander and Milt Hinton,” an admission-free, visual delight that opens Friday, April, 4, and runs through September 7.
Besides showing between 30 to 40 compelling images by each photographer, the exhibition is packed with special events, all also free. Among these are: live music sessions in the gallery; gallery talks by the noted bassist Brian Torff, a Hinton protégé, April 30 at 12:30 pm, and Yale Professor and celebrated jazz bassist/French horn player Willie Ruff September 4 at 5:30 pm. In an exhibition coup, Friedlander’s son, the acclaimed cutting-edge jazz cellist/composer Erik Friedlander, performs June 12 at 5:30 pm. Other events include a gallery talk September 3 at 12:30 pm by David G. Berger and Holly Maxson, co-directors of the Milton J. Hinton Photographic Collection and makers of the award-winning documentary, “Keeping Time: The Life, Music and Photographs of Milt Hinton,” to be screened September 4 at 4:00 pm.
Friedlander and Hinton’s jazz photographs are, like a fine duo, so simpatico that Molleen Theodore, assistant curator of programs, suggested their works “will be in dialogue” in the gallery, a kind of visual chamber jazz playing thematically off one another.
“Both Friedlander and Hinton,” Theodore said, “are capturing people doing what they love to do. Pretty much everybody who’s photographed here makes their life a life of jazz.”
Friedlander, who is one of America’s great photographers, has loved jazz all his life. Even early in his wide-ranging career, his jazz portraits graced album covers for Atlantic Records then grooving high on jazz in the ’50s.
As an “outsider’’ -- that is, as a non-musician -- Friedlander became a totally accepted “insider” when he began photographing the New Orleans scene in the late 1950s, graced with a keen eye for composition and a jazz musician’s feel for the surreal and the spontaneous.
As an industrious musician for seven decades, Hinton, in marked contrast, was always a jazz “insider.” With his open access, he took amazingly candid, in-the-moment shots. His premier portraits look like glorious stills from some classic cinema verité documentary on jazz.
The exhibition coincides with the publication of a fabulous Friedlander feast of jazz images, Playing for the Benefit of the Band: New Orleans Music Culture (Yale University Press), a revised and expanded edition of the photographer’s 1992 monograph, The Jazz People of New Orleans.
Similarly, a treasure trove of Hinton’s photos and extensive autobiography are served in Playing the Changes: Milt Hinton’s Life in Stories and Photographs (Vanderbilt University Press), which will also be available in the museum’s bookstore during the exhibition.
As a foretaste of the exhibition, these two volumes give you a sense of the richness of the images you’ll see in “Jazz Lives” comfortably housed in this splendid, encyclopedic museum.
Friedlander’s photos are layered with contrapuntal play of shapes, shadings, ideas and symbols, a visual polyphony. Especially with his portraits of elderly masters photographed at home in favorite rooms surrounded by ordinary objects of their daily life. Friedlander makes their cloistered spaces, which are marvelously cluttered with objects—everything from framed pictures of loved ones and Spartan furniture to mirrors and pictures of Jesus—reveal inner truths about his subjects.
“These photos would work in a way,” Theodore suggests, “even if the subject were removed because there are so many details. I always find a kind of Cubist quality—maybe that’s too art history sounding—to Lee Friedlander’s photos. They’re very formally complex—lots of layering-- and you can find a new detail every time you look at them.”
Friedlander loves to play on the arbitrary arrangement of objects, things like frames, which are mini-plays within-a-play, and mirrors with surprising or spectral reflections looking directly back at you. You see odd things oddly placed on the walls of revered musicians’ monk-like rooms, everything from tchotchkes to holy pictures and crucifixes.
As much as a blues player loves flatted thirds and sevenths, Friedlander loves incongruous juxtapositions of people and objects that in some ineffable way define who they are. He also loves odd, accidental metaphoric links between things, funny links like the one between a lonely looking, abandoned roll of toilet paper and a friendly dog and his master in a happy domestic scene.
In even the most apparently straight-forward photographs, he makes dramatic use of substance and shadow, plays with the seen and the implied but not present, adding mystery to his portraits and genre scenes.
Putting the stamp of everyday life in the USA on his images, Friedlander includes a mini-marketplace of product placement and public signage, everything from New Orleans street names to billboards extolling Pepsi-Cola as a magical elixir guaranteed to make you “Look Smart.” Common commercial products crop up often and naturally in Friedlander’s world, as they do in our own, but seasoned with little wry visual twists and turns, Thelonious Monk-like surprises, nuances, and dissonances you might miss at first glance.
Typically, for example, he shows us a musician holding a can of Schlitz in his hand while posing in his kitchen with his wife. It’s an ordinary looking kitchen scene -- except when you notice that the couple is being observed by an odd, Salvador Dali-like tuba, whose cartoon-like bell looks down, NSA-like, on the couple from a ridiculously high shelf, skeptically taking in Friedlander’s domestic genre scene.
Even among all the visual chatter of a room’s cluttered objects, faces, with all their telltale lived-in signs, reign supreme.
Character is revealed in every single portrait of these august Crescent City patriarchs and matriarchs. They all look like old friends, profoundly wise and wizened ancient uncles and aunts, elder sages who look like they’ve seen and remember everything there is to see and remember about life. Typical of these individual portraits of NOLA notables is the moving study of the wondrous, New Orleans clarinetist Willie Humphrey’s deeply weathered, weary face as he sits in solitude and silence in an isolated room at home. Although it’s a universal portrait of old age and resonates with intimations of mortality, it’s a life-mask, not a death-mask image.
Individual subjects are reflective and exude dignity. Photos of jamming bands and bustling parades capture celebratory and ritualistic moments, pomp and pageantry spiked with levity and just plain letting the good times roll. Mixing the ordinary with the extraordinary, Friedlander’s compositions of crowd scenes recreate a dizzying effect of action and dynamism. His visual urban poetry makes your head spin with the feel of the street, the sound of the beat, the joy of the music and magical, dreamlike, otherworldliness of Mardi Gras costumes and customs.
Hinton’s photos, in contrast, are more journalistic, less expressionistic, not layered with Friedlander’s multiple types of ambiguity. Yet they’re also revealing and open an invaluable window into the jazz life.
Packed with anecdotes, including such frightening tales as Hinton’s witnessing a lynching as a little boy to working for Chicago racketeer Al Capone in a jazz club as a young musician, Playing the Changes is a priceless evolutionary chronicle of jazz history itself. It’s laden with photos of 20th century jazz giants, including Cab Calloway (Hinton’s early, flamboyant boss), Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and countless others, both fabled and obscure.
With his carte blanche entry to wherever jazz was played, Hinton took shots on-stage, off-stage, in the studio, at clubs, in bars and near the band bus and trains that musicians traveled on, snapping portraits ranging in mood from a deeply contemplative Mary Lou Williams at Yale in New Haven to a cherubic Dizzy Gillespie clowning around with little children off-stage at a festival in France.
The exhibition is curated by three undergraduate students: Alexander Dubovoy, a pianist and vocalist and vice president of the Yale Undergraduate Jazz Collective (YUJC), an influential jazz advocacy group on campus; William Gearty, a saxophonist and president of the YUJA; and Nina Wexelblatt, a literature major with an interest in art history and music. The young curators have worked with a seasoned team of museum staffers, including Molleen Theodore; Joshua Chuang, the Richard Benson associate curator of photography and digital media; and Pamela Franks, deputy director for exhibitions, programming and education and the interim Seymour H. Knox Jr. curator of modern and contemporary art.
Yale University Art Gallery is at 1111 Chapel St., New Haven. The exhibition, which runs April 4 through September 7, is on the fourth floor of the landmark Louis Khan building. Information: artgallery.yale.edu and (203) 432-0600.
Kneebody Bends All Genres
Explosive contemporary rock and alternately intense and nuanced cutting-edge chamber jazz ensemble playing are just a few of the diverse elements that go into Kneebody’s genre-bending music that the oddly-named quintet will flex with its hip hypermobility at 8:30 and 10:00 pm on Friday, April 4, at New Haven’s Firehouse 12.
Kneebody features saxophonist Ben Wendel, trumpeter Shane Endsley, keyboardist Adam Benjamin, bassist Kaveh Rastegar and drummer Nate Wood. Tickets: $18.00, first set; $12.00, second set. Information: firehouse12.com and (203) 785-0468.
Byrd’s the Word
Pianist/vocalist Warren Byrd leads his flock of top-flight players at 8:00 pm on Monday, April 7, in the Jazz Mondays series at Black-eyed Sally’s, Hartford. Spreading the word for Byrd are the Dutch master trumpeter Saskia Laroo, who also plays saxophone and bass; guitarist Sinan Bakir, drummer Ben Biello and bassist Stephen “King” Porter. Admission: free. Information: (860) 278-7427. Bakir leads his own trio at 2:00 pm on Saturday, April 5, in the admission-free series at Integrity ’n Music, Wethersfield. Information: (860) 563-4005.
Jazz Scenarios: From Bakery to Books
La Petite France Bakery Café serves its Jazz Night Saturdays spring season opener featuring bassist Steve Clarke’s trio at 8:00 pm on Saturday, April 5, in the shop in West Hartford Center. $5.00, admission; $23.00, admission, sandwich, dessert and drink.
“John Brighenti and Friends” pairs Brighenti, a respected, veteran pianist, with his young protégé, vocalist Erin O’Luanaigh, at 6:00 pm on Thursday, April 3, at Casa Mia On the Green, Rocky Hill. Information: (860) 563-7000.
Pianist Jeff Wieselberg samples his voluminous pop repertoire at 3:00 pm on Sunday, April 6, at the Hartford Public Library’s free Baby Grand Jazz Series. Information: (860) 695-6295.
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