Music to our eyes
Photo exhibit puts focus on jazz greats
Visually, jazz had great timing. It arrived on the scene more or less concurrently with hand-held single-lens reflex cameras and high-speed film. This meant a music based on improvisation could be documented by a medium increasingly defined by it.
The where and who of jazz were almost as good for photographers as its when. Jazz clubs are high-contrast heaven: spotlighted performers in front of darkened listeners. Until recently, they also offered atmospheric filigree, courtesy of cigarette smoke — bad for the lungs, a boon for the lens. Best of all, artists like Louis Armstrong and Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie had faces (not to mention personalities) the camera feasted on.
All three make multiple appearances in “Herb Snitzer: Glorious Days and Nights,’’ which runs at Gallery Kayafas through Feb. 26. Other musicians include Thelonious Monk (at the keyboard, mouth agape, wearing a coolie hat), John Coltrane (backstage, lost in thought), Jimmy Rushing (his raised index rhyming with the head of the microphone he’s singing into).
The final element in this long and happy partnering of sight and sound is another set of whos: gifted photographers like Herman Leonard (who died last August), William Gottlieb, William Claxton, Milt Hinton (whose day job was playing stalwart jazz bass), and Francis Wolff (a co-owner of Blue Note records). Snitzer belongs in their company.
There are two dozen black-and-white photographs in the show, most taken in performance, a few posed. Miles, of course, never really posed. He presented — like a monarch letting his subjects gaze upon him. Has anyone, anywhere, surpassed him at staring down the camera? Snitzer’s refuses to blink.
The photographs divide into two chronological groups, circa 1960 and circa 1990. This allows us to appreciate the consistency of Snitzer’s passion for the music. That he felt the gloriousness of those days and nights is plain. It’s there in the captivating sculpture elegance of his shot of Eddie Jones, Count Basie’s bassist, cradling the neck of his instrument. The sculpture — a Barbara Hepworth? — could be called “Strings and Fingers.’’ That was 1960. Thirty years later, Snitzer shows us Sonny Rollins onstage in full Saxophone Colossus mode. Sculpture has given way to gale. Uniting both are the photographer’s equally fine eye, instincts, and reflexes.
Sonny is the hinge, if that’s the word, between the Snitzer show and “What Are We Doing? New Work by Harvey Loves Harvey.’’ Harvey Loves Harvey is a performance-art duo, Jason Dean and Matthew Nash (Nash teaches at the Art Institute of Boston at Lesley University). They do oddball actions in public — a candlelight vigil to the memory of Henry Hudson, a two-man George McClellan campaign rally (McClellan was the Civil War general who ran as a peace candidate against Abraham Lincoln in 1864) — and document what they did with color photographs that are 40 inches by 30 inches. Most of the photographs come from their “14 Actions for 14th Street,’’ which took place along that lower Manhattan thoroughfare.
Sonny enters the picture because, leaving 14th Street behind, Harvey Loves Harvey went on the Williamsburg Bridge, where the saxophonist famously practiced during the late ’50s and early ’60s. HLH played Sonny’s album “The Bridge,’’ recording their listening to the music along with the ambient noise of traffic and other passersby. Dean and Nash then put themselves on a copy of the album cover of “The Bridge.’’
That’s pretty funny, but nowhere near as funny as another album-cover substitution. HLH took the cover of the Clash’s most celebrated LP and changed the title to “Trader Joe’s Calling.’’ Why? Well, the cover photo shows the band’s bassist, Paul Simonon, smashing his instrument during a 1979 New York concert at the Palladium (which was on, where else, 14th Street). That site is now a Trader Joe’s. The photograph shows HLH outside the store, Nash holding a copy of their version of the LP, and Dean smashing a baguette. Rock n’ roll sacrilege! Any bets that their favorite track on the album is “Lost in the Supermarket’’?
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.