Thursday, April 21, 2011

Now here's an exhibit to get jazzed about

Once upon a time — and, relatively speaking, it wasn't  that long ago, just 50, maybe 60 years ago — the lower-case gods walked among us. Jazz gods, a pantheon of now-legendary players  like Armstrong, Parker, Gillespie, then just working stiffs. Not only walking among us, but also playing across the street from each other. Not just a street, of course, but The Street: 52nd, between 5th and 6th, in a confluence of clubs, unrivaled anywhere, except, arguably, New Orleans. You just never knew who would walk through the door and take the stage. A case in point: 1947. Dizzy Gillespie was playing Three Deuces with his new band, which included Milt Jackson and the core of what would become the Modern Jazz Quartet, then in walked Ella Fitzgerald. She wasn't working. No, the Queen of Song was there to see bassist Ray Brown, her fiance. Gillespie cajoled her onto the stage, and William P. Gottlieb, the writer/photographer who documented the scene for the Washington Post first, and, later, DownBeat,, moved into position. But this was not the shot he wanted. He wanted Gillespie in the frame. According to Gottlieb, he made a gesture with his shoulder and Gillespie, one of his favorite subjects over the years — and a guy who did not mind mugging for the camera — knew what needed to be done. He swooped into frame and assumed an angelic expression — "making like a fawn in the background," is how the photographer described it during an interview with the Library of Congress, which acquired the collection in 1995. 
The Endicott exhibit, which runs through May 29, has 65 black-and-white images from the 1940s, the so-called "golden era" of jazz, which, on the half-empty side of the glass, translates into something like the last glorious gasp of traditional jazz. It celebrates a scene lousy with genius while, at the same time, documenting, obliquely, a changing of the guard, showing, for example, Howard McGhee, who, with Gillespie, was one of the first be-bop trumpeters, sharing a moment with "a young onlooker with intense eyes," who, Gottlieb had been told, was a student at Juilliard. And there he is again, that guy with the intense eyes, this time sporting a ridiculous moustache, hanging with Coleman Hawkins, who looked to, yes, Miles  Davis, as the spark for a more modern sound. You also see an impossibly young Sarah Vaughn at the beginning of her career, killing time. This is a transitional moment, musically, economically and culturally, just before the sudden ascendence of pop and rock, perhaps subconsciously referenced by the image of Frank Sinatra, looking excruciatingly confident and hip, with his rumpled, open shirt, and untied tie tucked into his pants, all filled out, but still hungry, at a Columbia recording session, which Gottlieb says he did “for kicks.”

The exhibit includes several of what have become iconic images, none more famous than Gottlieb's portrait of Billie Holday, head tilted back, eyes closed, capturing the anguish of her troubled life, one of his most-reproduced images — one that made it onto a 29-cent stamp. There are plenty of portraits: A joyous looking Roy Eldridge, a crucial figure musically, the link between Armstrong and Gillespie, but a player who has been all but swallowed up by history. Django Reinhardt looking quite serene in an image that shows in detail the injuries to the guitarist's hand from a 1928 fire that left him with only two fully functioning fingers on his left hand. Earl "Fatha" Hines at the piano, smile on his face, cigar in his mouth, big puff of smoke above his head. The best, like the Holiday image, are more than just portraits, they seem to reveal something about the subject in a way that predates Annie Leibowitz by decades: Buddy Rich in a leopard skin dressing robe, young and scrawny — and kinda dweeby. Cab Calloway, looking, well, slightly off his rocker, big smile on his face, like he's trying to see something on his forehead. Dave Tough, who was known as a driven, if tempermental drummer who is captured backstage, between sets, working out something on a practice pad. And an image that seems out of place, a stark shot of Leadbelly, all sharp edges and contrast — an effective, if misleading portrait. He "was not as ominous looking as I made him seem," Gottlieb says.  There's a pensive Benny Goodman, in what looks almost like a formal studio shot. There are concert shots, the stock and trade of what wasn't even a business then, perhaps none better than the one of Bird taking a solo, eyes bugged out in what looks like a deer-caught-in-the-headlights moment. In the image, he's framed in the space between Tommy Porter's profile and the neck and headstock of his bass, an image made on the fly, but looking like it was carefully staged.

Gottliebe rarely dips into effects.Two exceptions in the current exhibit are the portrait of Mel Torme, whom he posed above a dressing room sink, in which he had placed dry ice to give the Velvet Fog a smoky look, and what looks like a multiple exposure of Stan Kenton and his trumpeter Buddy Childers, but it’s actually shot through a shattered mirror, a little too much effort, perhap for a title concept: "The Shattering Music of Stan Kenton." Whatever shattering music may be. A mirror is used to much better effect in a shot showing Parker and Red Rodney, his new trumpeter (and the only white  guy in his quintet, creating the usual headaches in the racially segregated South) hanging in the studio where Gillespie, seen in a reflection in the mirror, was recording.

It’s been said that Gottlieb was not the first guy to swing into jazz clubs and take pictures of musicians, but there’s no arguing with the fact that he was the first to make it into an art form. He had been an ad rep at the Washington Post and conned editors into letting him write a weekly jazz column. They agreed, but wouldn't pay for a photographer (some things never change) so Gottlieb bought a Speed Graphic press camera an and learned how to use it. After a stint in the army, he returned to the New York jazz clubs and spent most of the 1940s capturing the vibrant music scene, this time working for Down Beat. The negatives were stored for more than 30 years until Gottlieb’s retirement in 1979, when he began printing. He donated to the work to the Library of Congress in 2002, four years before he died in 2006 the age of 89.

JUST THE FACTS, MAN: Portraits from "The Golden Age of Jazz:  Photos by William P. Gottlieb" runs through May 9 at the Spencer Presentation Gallery, Center for the Arts, Endicott College, 376 Hale Street, Beverly.  Gallery hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday, Tuesday and Friday; from 1:30-7 p.m. Thursday;  and 2-4 p.m. Saturday and Sundays. The exhibit is free and open to the public. A reception will be held from 6-7 p.m. April 23, followed by a performance by the North Shore Jazz Project, featuring Amanda Carr and the Everett Longstreth Octet, in Rose Performance Hall. Steve Schwartz, host of Jazz on WGBH, will emcee. Tickets for the concert are $10, or $5 for those with Endicott IDs. For  tickets, log onto the Endicott we b or call 978.998.7700.

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