|Mid-century New York was home to a new sound known as bebop and its most innovative practitioners, colossal figures like Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk. Two photographers and one graphic designer helped to define the look of the music with their archetypal images of jazz musicians on stage and in the recording studio, and their album artwork. Can you dig it?
On Stage: Herman Leonard
CREDIT: Herman Leonard Photography, LLC, poster for Herman Leonard exhibition at Lincoln Centre
The jazz photographer Herman Leonard, who died last year aged 87, was famous for his smoky backlit black and white images of jazz musicians on stage. An example of his work, one of the most iconic jazz pictures of all time, is his photograph of the handsome and urbane tenor-saxophonist Dexter Gordon on the bandstand at the Royal Roost club in New York, the smoke of his cigarette billowing in the air. This was something of a trademark: musicians glowing in brilliant light, their vitality contrasting with the darkness of the nightclub. There are few jazz books that do not include his photographs.
In Studio: Francis Wolff
CREDIT: Francis Wolff/Rizzoli Universe Promotional Books
German-born photographer Francis Wolff emigrated to the United States in 1939. That same year Wolff joined Blue Note Records, co-founded by his childhood friend Alfred Lion. Wolff took over 30,000 photographs of some of the most significant jazz recording sessions of the 1950s and 1960s. In the words of Michael Cuscuna, a leading discographer of Blue Note Records, Wolff ‘captured amazing candid portraits of great artists that reveal the joy and intensity of jazz at the point of creation.’ A brilliant example of Wolff’s candid style is this photograph of the virtuoso pianist Bud Powell and his young son in a recording session.
On Wax: Reid Miles
CREDIT: Design: Reid Miles. Photo: Francis Wolff.
In 1956, Lion and Wolff discovered Reid Miles, the designer who gave Blue Note album art a style to match the music. Blue Note covers were produced on low budgets. Reid Miles’ fee was only ‘fifty bucks an album’. Author Robin Kinross explains that ‘on his own account, Miles was never a real enthusiast for this kind of jazz; he worked from a simple brief from Lion which summarised the character of the album. But the fact that Miles was not completely involved with the record content may help to explain the splendid sense of certainty that many of these covers have’. Reid made use of Wolff’s photographs, which have a graphic quality in their contrasting light and dark tones and negative space, and often tinted them with eye-catching colour. A collection of Miles’ Blue Note covers can be found here.
The London Jazz Festival, in association with Radio Three, runs from Friday 11th to Sunday 20th November with acts including pianist McCoy Tyner (once photographed by Francis Wolff). We hope to see some interesting jazz photography coming out of the festival (although the smoking ban rather precludes the smoky aesthetic of a Leonard or Wolff).
By Mark Wright (Assistant Editor)