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The Greats Of Jazz Photography

Blog
The Greats Of Jazz Photography

12.11.2018

Text: Leyla Aksu
Illustration: Saydan Akşit

Proceeding in parallel with the development of jazz music, jazz photography has a long running history as both artistic record and expression. Starting with the musicians' portraits of the 1910s and capturing the most iconic images of jazz in the 1940s through the jazz golden age, those photographers left an unforgettable heritage to the next century with these images made both the musicians and the spirit of jazz visible. The masters who recorded the visual memory of jazz such as Milt Hinton, Francis Wolff and Val Wilmer were as passionate as jazz musicians. From the studio candids and performance shots to publicity portraits and countless album covers, we're paying tribute to the biggest names in jazz photography.

William P. Gottlieb (1917-2006)
Known today for his vast number images decorating the pages of DownBeat, William P. Gottlieb was known for keeping the pulse of the New York jazz scene throughout the 1930’s and ‘40’s and played a key role in increasing the visibility of early bebop through the images he captured. Starting out as a journalist for the The Washington Post, and as a regular of the era’s dark and dingy clubs, he enjoyed a rarely found closeness to his subjects, capturing the spirit and energy of their music. Gottlieb got to work especially closely with artists Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie, while also photographing some of the era’s jazz greats likes Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday, Jo Stafford, Coleman Hawkins, Benny Goodman, and Ella Fitzgerald. Leaving all of his work in the public domain upon his passing in 2006, today Gottlieb’s images adorns the cover of over 250 albums.

Herman Leonard (1923-2010)
Quincy Jones once said, “When people think of jazz, their mental image is likely one of Herman’s” and Herman Leonard’s iconic, smoky images are truly among some of the most recognizable jazz photographs today. Realizing early on that his camera would allow him easy access to concert venues, Leonard headed straight for New York’s jazz scene in 1947. Spending his nights at clubs like the Royal Roost and Birdland, he developed close friendships with the performing musicians, capturing Dexter Gordon, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Lena Horne, and Quincy Jones to name a few. Leonard’s work currently resides in the Smithsonian museum archive and has been compiled in books like The Eye of Jazz (1985), Jazz Memories (1995), and Jazz, Giants, And Journeys (2016).

Lee Tanner (1931–2013)
Jazz photographer Lee Tanner chronicled over 40 years of music history through his candid photographs, taking care to try to capture the interaction between the musician’s spontaneity and their music, photographing artists including Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington, Zoot Sims, Johnny Hodges, Cootie Williams, and John Coltrane. Utilizing new technologies to work with available light, Tanner’s first published photograph appeared in DownBeat in 1958, his work then featured on albums released by labels like Atlantic, Sony, Columbia, Verve, Rhino, and Prestige, as we all as outlets such as Rolling Stone, Jazz Magazine, Jazz Times, and Popular Photography. Tanner’s images can also be seen in his books like Dizzy (1994) and Images of Jazz (1996), while he personally selected the works of various jazz photographers throughout history to appear in the anthology The Jazz Image: Masters of Jazz Photography (2006).

Chuck Stewart (1927–2017)
One of the most productive jazz photographers, American artist Chuck Stewarts’s 70-year career helped to immortalize countless jazz legends, among them Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Charles, Charles Mingus, Sonny Rollins, Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughan, and most iconically, the studio sessions for John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme. Stewart also struck up a friendship with fellow jazz photographer Herman Leonard while at university and also took over the photographer’s studio, continuing his legacy after he passing. Aiming to capture the soul of these artists through his portraits, today Stewart’s work is featured on 2000 different album covers and also forms a large portion of the Impulse!, Mercury, Reprise, Verve, and Chess Records catalogs.

Milt Hinton (1910–2000)
Bassist and photographer Milt Hinton is undoubtedly one of the most important photographers to come from within the world of jazz. Getting his first camera in 1935, just before heading out on the road with Cab Calloway in 1936, he captured thousands of images of the multitude of artists he had the opportunity of working with throughout his musical career, including Billie Holiday, Danny Barker, Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, Benny Goodman, and Art Blakey. Never wanting to take posed photographs, Hinton was able to capture the biggest jazz and pop stars of the time in their most natural surroundings, on tour, in rehearsal, in the studio, at parties, and even in their homes. Many of Hinton’s images appear in the film “A Great Day in Harlem” (1994), a documentary depicting one of the most important photographs in jazz history.

Francis Wolff (1907/08-1971)
One of the most prominent record labels in jazz history, not only for its music but for its impact on design history, Blue Note Records’ co-founder Francis Wolff took thousands of photographs throughout his 30-year career. According to Herbie Hancock, Wolff’s images not only reflected the ease of the moment but the entire era, capturing almost every single recording session and rehearsal for Blue Note recordings. Wolff worked with artists like Dexter Gordon, Art Blakey, John Coltrane, Max Roach, Theloneous Monk, Wayne Shorter, Ornette Coleman, George Benson, and Ron Carter, many of whom changed the face of jazz with their music. These images captured by Wolff between 1941 and 1965 were featured on countless Blue Note album covers, deeply affecting the entire aesthetic associated with the jazz movement.

William Claxton (1927-2008)
Describing his photography as “jazz for the eye,” William Claxton is an artist whose work also provided the cover art for numerous albums and appeared in magazines like Life, Paris Match, and Vogue. Claxton began developing a great interest in jazz at a young age, and his images captured many of the jazz players visiting California, depicting the west coast jazz scene in a lighter, sun-soaked world standing in deep contrast to the dark and smoky clubs of New York City. Claxton prepared many album covers for Pacific Jazz Records, snapping images of Chet Baker, Donald Byrd, Charlie Parker, Art Pepper, Dizzy Gillespie, Billie Holiday, and Bill Evans throughout his career. Among Claxton’s best-known work are his images of Chet Baker, which not only played a large role in his own career but helped launch Baker into the icon we know today.

Val Wilmer (1941– )
British photographer, writer, and music historian Valerie Wilmer has been chronicling jazz artists since 1959, and names like Ornette Coleman, Sun Ra, Charlie Haden, Langston Hughes, Louis Armstrong, George Benson, John Coltrane, and Duke Ellington are just a few of those that Wilmer has photographed over the years. Inviting musicians over to her mothers’ for tea at a young age, Wilmer’s family home soon became a local haunt for musicians visiting London. Her writing and images were soon featured in outlets including Jazz Journal, Mojo, The Wire, Jazz News, and she has penned numerous books including As Serious as Your Life: The Story of the New Jazz (1977), focusing on the early days of the free jazz movement. Wilmer is also one of the co-founders of the first all-female photography agency in the UK, which was established in 1983.

Esmond Edwards (1927–2007)
Photographer, producer, and sound engineer Esmond Edwards was another indispensible chronicler of the jazz and blues scene, taking on the role of photographer for Prestige Records throughout the 1950’s and ‘60’s, making his mark on hundreds of album covers. Edwards later moved on to supervise recording sessions before taking up positions at Verve and Chess Records, breaking down doors for African-Americans with each position he held. Throughout his career, Edwards captured timeless images while working with artists like Miles Davis, George Benson, Keith Jarrett, Coleman Hawkins, Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins, and Art Farmer.

Bob Parent (1923–1987)
Holding his lens to New York musicians starting in 1945, Canadian photographer Bob Parent was one of the first photographers to work regularly in jazz clubs. His photographs have since been featured in books, exhibits, album covers, and outlets including Life, DownBeat, and Metronome, while his work for Savoy, utilizing techniques he developed to use available light, received great acclaim. Not a fan of using flash, Parent captured images of Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, taking thousands of photos across the jazz clubs of New York and Boston, eventually leaving behind an archive of close to 200,000 images.

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