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Posts from the ‘Photography’ Category

The Japanese for pathos

Sonny Clark F Wolff

The hip Sonny Clark album, as everyone knows, is Cool Struttin’, a quintet date from 1958 which has come to epitomise what we think of as the Blue Note style: relaxed but compact hard bop, rooted in a deep swing and with the blues never far away. Clark died of a heroin overdose in 1963, aged 31, with nothing to his name beyond his appearances on some exceptional recordings. He would no doubt be astonished to learn that his most celebrated album would sell over 200,000 copies between 1991 and 2009 — almost 180,000 of those copies in Japan, where Cool Struttin’ mysteriously became one of the biggest jazz albums of all time.

My favourite Clark album is something different: a trio session that didn’t see the light of day until its release in Japan more than three decades after the pianist’s death. Blues in the Night is a comparatively modest effort: only 26 minutes long, or 33 minutes if you count the alternate take of the title track. Presumably that’s why it wasn’t released at the time: simply not enough music to make a full 12-inch LP.

Clark was a fine composer, but Blues in the Night is all standards: “Can’t We Be Friends”, “I Cover the Waterfront”, “Somebody Loves Me”, “Dancing in the Dark”, “All of You”. It’s a supper-club set, with nothing to upset the horses. But it’s also, in its quiet and unassuming way, pure treasure. With the great Paul Chambers on bass and Wes Landers — otherwise unknown to me — on drums, Clark makes his way through these tunes at a variety of comfortable tempos with a wonderful touch perfectly highlighted by the simplicity of the setting. I can listen to it all the way through just concentrating on how he articulates a triad: putting down his fingers in a way that makes the chord far more than three notes being played at the same time, the minute unsynchronisations that make it human. And what he finds, I suppose, is a sweet spot between Bud Powell’s probing, restless single-note lines and the swinging, transparently joyful lyricism of Wynton Kelly. Which is a place I’m very happy to be.

I’m indebted for the Cool Struttin’ sales figure to an extraordinary chapter devoted to Clark in a book by Sam Stephenson called Gene Smith’s Sink, a kind of discursive biographical appendix to The Jazz Loft, an earlier book in which Stephenson gave a detailed history of the rackety loft apartment on New York City’s Sixth Avenue, in what used to be called the Flower District, where the great photographer W. Eugene Smith kept a kind of open house for beatniks and other outsiders, recording all their comings and goings on camera film and reel-to-reel tape. From 1957 to 1965 Smith’s loft was the location of an endless jam session featuring the likes of Thelonious Monk and Zoot Sims. Sara Fishko’s 2015 documentary film, The Jazz Loft According to W. Eugene Smith, is based on the book and is highly recommended.

Clark was a regular at the loft, and in Gene’s Sink the author recounts how Smith’s obsession with recording everything around him — even TV and radio news bulletins — extended to the sound of the pianist barely surviving another overdose. Stephenson himself fell in love with Clark’s playing when hearing another posthumous Blue Note release, Grant Green’s The Complete Quartets with Sonny Clark. He writes about him with enormous sensitivity, piecing together the story of a life that began as the youngest of a family of children in a Pennsylvania town called Herminie No 2, named after the mineshaft that gave the place its reason for existence.

If you’re interested in Sonny Clark’s progress from Pennsylvania coal country via Southern California to the New York jazz scene of the late 1950s, Stephenson’s beautiful piece of writing is the thing to read. And it was while following in Gene Smith’s footsteps to Japan (where the photographer documented the horrendous effects of mercury poisoning on the people of the fishing village of Minamata in the 1970s) that the author came across the ideograms most commonly used by Japanese jazz critics in discussions of Clark’s playing: they can be translated as “sad and melancholy”, “sympathetic and touching”, “suppressed feelings”, and one which combines the symbols for “grieving”, “autumn” and “the heart” to suggest “a mysterious atmosphere of pathos and sorrow”.

That mood isn’t really reflected in my favourite Sonny Clark record. What I hear, funnily enough, is an expression of pleasure in being alive to play the music he loved and for which he had such a precocious talent. I’m guessing he sometimes felt like that, too.

* Sam Stephenson’s Gene’s Sink: A Wide-Angle View was published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2017. The Jazz Loft Project was published by Knopf Doubleday in 2012. The portrait of Sonny Clark is from Blue Note Jazz Photography of Francis Wolff, by Michael Cuscuna, Charlie Lourie and Oscar Schnider, published by Universe in 2000 (photo © Mosaic Images). Clark’s Blues in the Night was first released in Japan in 1979 and issued on CD in 1996. The tracks are also available on Clark’s Standards CD, released in 1998.

Spector / Hopper

 

Phil Spector noir

These days, nobody talks about him. I hardly ever listen to the string of epic records he made in the 1960s, and I once wrote a book about him. He’s nine years into a 19-year sentence for second-degree murder, and currently being held at a prison hospital in Stockton, California. He’ll be 88 when he comes out.

So there he was this afternoon, hanging on a wall in Somerset House at this year’s Photo London exhibition, immortalised by his friend Dennis Hopper in 1965.

Back in the days when Phil Spector was making his classic records at the Gold Star studio in Los Angeles, Hopper, who had acted with James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause and Giant, was one of those who sometimes dropped by. Spector always liked an audience.

“We hit it off right from the beginning, hanging out at Canter’s, chasing girls,” Hopper told Mick Brown, the author of Tearing Down the Wall of Sound, the definitive Spector biography. Hopper was also pursuing a side-career as a photographer, and after attending the sessions for “River Deep — Mountain High” he shot the cover photo for Ike and Tina Turner’s only Philles album.

In 1967 Spector became involved in a Hopper film project, The Last Movie, which collapsed the following year (and was revived and completed in 1970). In 1968 he played a coke dealer in the era-defining Easy Rider, written by Hopper, Peter Fonda and Terry Southern, produced by Fonda and directed by Hopper. The Christmas following the movie’s release, Spector sent his friends a card featuring a still from his scene and the motto “A little snow at Christmas never hurt anyone…”

Hopper’s photograph of Spector laughing maniacally — blurred so that it looks oddly like one of Francis Bacon’s screaming Popes — catches him at his peak. Or just after it, actually. 1965 was the year of the Ronettes’ “Born to be Together”, the Righteous Brothers’ “Unchained Melody” and Tom Wolfe’s essay for the Sunday magazine of the New York Herald Tribune, “The First Tycoon of Teen”. It was the year after the matchless triumph of “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin'”, the year before the crippling debacle of “River Deep”.

The framed gelatin silver print is being offered by the Johannes Faber gallery of Vienna. It’s yours for £16,000.

* Photo London ends on Sunday, May 20.

Greenwich Village, February 1963

Don HunsteinThe man who took the photograph that appeared on the cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan died on March 18, aged 88. Don Hunstein’s obituary in the New York Times tells us that he bought a Leica while serving with the US Air Force in England, and attended classes at the Central School of Art and Design. After returning home he eventually became a staff photographer at Columbia Records, at a time when that meant working with Miles Davis, Billie Holiday, Glenn Gould, Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington, Leonard Bernstein and many others.

He was in Columbia’s studios when Davis recorded Kind of Blue and Holiday recorded Lady in Satin. But no image of his turned out to have greater cultural resonance than the one he took in a Greenwich Village street on a cold February day in 1963. He had already taken the picture for the cover of Dylan’s debut album (which the art department had flipped, so that Dylan’s guitar looks to be strung for a left-handed player and his coat buttons are on the wrong side). For the second session, Hunstein turned up at the singer’s top-floor apartment at 161 West 4th Street in Greenwich Village.

Suze Rotolo, Dylan’s 19-year-old girlfriend, was present, and a few photographs were taken indoors before the three of them stepped out into the slush-lined streets. Dylan, thinking of his image, put on a thin suede jerkin over his denim shirt. Rotolo sensibly opted for a warm dark-green belted coat. On a nearby side street, Hunstein got them to walk towards him, arm in arm, and started snapping away.

When I interviewed Suze at the time of the publication of her excellent autobiography (A Freewheelin’ Time) in 2008, she told me of a recent conversation with the photographer in which they had disagreed about the precise location of the shot that ended up on the cover. Hunstein said it was on Cornelia Street. She insisted it was Jones Street, a bit further up West 4th. “So that’s going to have to remain a mystery for all those Dylanologists,” she chuckled.

I liked her enormously. When I asked her how it felt to listen now to all those songs written when she and Dylan were together (“Don’t Think Twice”, “Boots of Spanish Leather” and so on), she responded to the sort of crass journalistic question she’d been avoiding for four and a half decades with words that I found very moving. “I can recognise things,” she said. “It’s like looking at a diary. It brings it all back. And what’s hard is that you remember being unsure of how life was going to go — his, mine, anybody’s. So, from the perspective of an older person looking back, you enjoy them, but also think of them as the pain of youth, the loneliness and struggle that youth is, or can be.”

She died in 2011. She and Dylan had stayed in intermittent touch, she told me. A few years after their painful breakup he helped her out when her apartment was destroyed by fire. Among her lost possessions were the coat she had worn that day in 1963, and one of his Gibson guitars.

Roland Kirk in Swinging London

roland-kirkHere’s a surprise: in the middle of an assembly of frames snipped from contact prints included in a Photographers’ Gallery show of the work of the late Terence Donovan, there’s a picture of Roland Kirk. It was taken in 1963, during the American multi-instrumentalist’s first visit to London, when he played a season at Ronnie Scott’s Club — the original one on Gerrard Street in Chinatown — and a few concert dates around the country.

Donovan was primarily a fashion photographer — one of the trio of working-class London boys, along with David Bailey and Brian Duffy, who revolutionised the profession in the early ’60s — and his image of Kirk is surrounded by shots of Jean Shrimpton (to be seen directly above Kirk), Celia Hammond, Paulene Stone and other celebrated models of the era.

I saw Kirk for the first time during that short tour in 1963, in Nottingham, where he was accompanied by a British rhythm section. He had yet to add the “Rahsaan” to his name, and he was still wearing a dark business suit on stage. He was startlingly good, whether playing three reed instruments at once — the skill that had brought him to public attention — or just one. And to preface his tune “We Free Kings” he spent a good five minutes telling a very funny and very hip version of the story about the Three Wise Men on their way to Bethlehem, holding his audience spellbound.

The music-related element of the Photographers’ Gallery show also includes Donovan’s nice colour portrait of Jimi Hendrix, swathed in silks, from 1967, his famous videos for Malcolm McLaren’s “Madame Butterfly” and Robert Palmer’s “Addicted to Love”, and his series of portraits of British pop stars — including Elvis Costello, Jarvis Cocker, Supergrass and Bryan Ferry — for an issue of GQ magazine in the 1990s.

But it was the reminder of Kirk that I took away. There’s a new documentary about him, Adam Kahan’s The Case of the Three-Sided Dream, which is just out on DVD. It includes a marvellous sequence from a 1971 edition of the Ed Sullivan Show on which Rahsaan leads a band including Charles Mingus, Archie Shepp and Roy Haynes. After Sullivan has announced that they’ll be playing “My Cherie Amour”, they cut loose instead on a wild version of Mingus’s “Haitian Fight Song”. Sullivan takes it in his stride; following the appearances of Elvis Presley in 1956 and the Beatles in 1964, it was his third great moment of musical history — and maybe the one that finished him off, since his show ended its 23-year run a few weeks later.

Finding Bob Campbell, photographer

Robert Campbell Son House John HammondIt’s 14 years since Jessica Ferber, who had just graduated in sociology and photography from the University of Vermont, was handed a few boxes of photographic prints and negatives and other bits and pieces left by a recently deceased resident of a homeless shelter. She was asked if she wanted to do something with them. They would occupy much of her time for the next decade as she sorted through the material, began the painstaking process of restoration, and then raised funds via Kickstarter to complete the work and to secure publication in book form.

The battered prints, negs, postcards, receipts, letters, cassette tapes and a journal were all that remained of the life of Robert James Campbell, who had died at the age of 65 of accumulated symptoms, including heart and kidney disease, more than 30 years after his career as a photographer had petered out. But what Ferber saw convinced her that here was something worth preserving.

Bob Campbell was born in New York into a wealthy family, and grew up in homes in Portsmouth, New Hampshire and Burlington, Vermont. He was interested in cameras from an early age, and he also played the double bass. He dropped out of college after a year and his first photographs of jazz musicians seem to have been taken when he served in the US Army in the 1950s. When he moved to New York on his 25th birthday in 1961, taking a studio in the West Village, he gravitated towards clubs like the Village Vanguard.

Rebirth of the Cool is the product of Ferber’s 10-year obsession, a handsome large-format book that chronicles not just Campbell’s work but his life, mainly through family photographs from his childhood. It includes impressive black and white studies of many important musicians, among them Bud Powell (at the recording session for The Return of Bud Powell in 1964), Elvin Jones, Miles Davis and John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, Lee Morgan, the MJQ (shot during a trip to Germany in 1958), Tommy Turrentine, Philly Joe Jones, the Adderley brothers, Dave Brubeck, Gerry Mulligan, and Warne Marsh with Lee Konitz.

Campbell was also taken with Bob Dylan; although there are no shots to document that specific interest, his involvement in the burgeoning Greenwich Village folk and blues scene is reflected in photographs of Son House with the great A&R man John Hammond (see above), Mississippi John Hurt, Miriam Makeba (with Sivuca, the Brazilian accordionist), Richie Havens, Bill Monroe, the Staple Singers and the duo Jim & Jean — Jim Glover and Jean Ray (below), the models for the characters played by Carey Mulligan and Justin Timberlake in Inside Llewyn Davis.

Robert Campbell Jim and Jean

The influence of Henri Cartier-Bresson is pretty clear in these photographs, particularly when Campbell moves outside to shoot scenes in Washington Square and the streets of the Village. He didn’t make stylised images of smoke-wreathed musicians, as Herman Leonard had done. He was after the informality of an emerging counterculture, more in the manner of Carole Reiff or Ed van der Elsken. One shot from a party in a Village apartment is so cool that it makes me wish it were 1964 all over again. He seems to have tried fashion work, but he needed to take other jobs, such as building sets for theatre companies, to keep going.

I’d come across him once before, in the pages of Blue Melody, the excellent memoir of Tim Buckley by Lee Underwood, Buckley’s friend and guitarist. Campbell met Buckley and Underwood at the Tin Angel, a Village club, and moved with them to California in 1967 before drifting out of sight. “Bob was in his early thirties, bearded, very bright, well-read, a musically literate fellow who did not graduate from college,” Underwood writes. “When I asked him why, he said, ‘I like books and I read a lot, but I don’t study. When reading becomes work, a task, then that’s it. My seventh- and eighth-grade guidance counsellor accused me of learning by osmosis. My mother got burned up at my motto in the yearbook: I’m not lazy, I’m just tired.'”

Underwood records Campbell as having turned up at Buckley’s funeral in Santa Monica in 1975. “One true and trusted friend,” he calls him. By that time the photography was over and the set-building was how he earned his money. Ferber reconstructs the story of his last years from minimal evidence, telling us that in the early 1980s he returned to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, where he inherited the family home on his mother’s death in 1987. But it all disappeared, and so did he until 1995, when he was taken in by a homeless charity in Burlington until his death seven years later.

He wasn’t a genius, but the photographs show that there was certainly a measure of poetry in his soul, and Ferber’s devotion to the surviving fragments of his life adds an extra layer of it to this fine book.

* Rebirth of the Cool by Jessica Ferber, with a foreword by Marc Myers, is published by powerHouse Books of Brooklyn, NY. Blue Melody by Lee Underwood was published by Backbeat Books of San Francisco in 2002.