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Jazz photography excerpt

Tuesday 3/24/20

Good Christ I'm writing at a high level. Just one thing after another, completely different from what proceeded it. Just composed an 800 word piece on a volume of Francis Wolff's jazz photography. Excerpt:


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There are times I have watched the artful dissolves in Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane and wished there was a way to hang them on museum walls as paintings in motion. Jazz can have a similar effect in that the notes of the music virtually coruscate the air, lighting it up as we listen, the glorious strobe of rhythm.


With this book of Francis Wolff photographs, those waves of sound are all but detectable to the naked eye, the seeing soul. Wolff, of course, famously co-founded Blue Note with Alfred Lion and was the amateur shutterbug—turned Walker Evans-level virtuoso—of the partnership.

He had a gift for being present to make others look exceedingly present, without detecting his presence. As with his photograph here of Clifford Brown blowing a note on Art Blakey’s A Night at Birdland session from 1954 with eyes closed, lips pursed—even focused, you could say—while hitting a lick on which much must have been vested. Trumpet descends diagonally left to right, an edifice of classy jacket extending vertically in balance, Brown’s expressive face the top of this most potent of jazz triangulations. We feel the power of the geometrical form. We see no one else in the band, but we intuit how in synch this player must be with them, and, consequently, the rest of the players with each other.


Most of these shots are loving bestowed their own individual pages. We see Kenny Drew leading a trio session in 1953 with one hand pressing some keys, Drew’s gaze looking camera-ward, but not strictly at the camera, as if espying a new idea hanging in the air, thus blotting out immediate surroundings. We lose ourselves in jazz as listeners—well, lose ourselves to find ourselves—but we often don’t think about how the musicians do the same thing, something Wolff is always cognizant of.


A Bobby Hutcherson photo from a rejected Grant Green session in 1964 riffs on Rodin’s The Thinker. He’s poised over his vibes, crossed mallets in one hand, clenched fist—with thumb extended—supporting chin. Picasso would talk about the rhymes in paintings, how one part—say, a crossbeam at the top—will play off of the tapered edge of a vase of flowers. The emphasis on sound is key; the best visual artists have always built in a kind of sound, just as the best poets build in a form of painting.