Black and White in Focus
In "The Jazz Photographs of Milt Hinton" there is a picture of Billie Holiday, reunited with the great Count Basie, rehearsing in a New York City television studio. Basie sits at a piano with Holiday standing behind him. She seems to be giving the pianist a serious chewing-out or at the very least telling him something sassy. For his part Basie, wearing his trademark porkpie hat, looks up at her with a you-old-devil grin on his face. The year, 1957, was one of Holiday's last good ones.
Another photo by Hinton, taken two years later, captures the 43-year-old Holiday during her final recording session. She's alone in the frame, apparently staring at her sheet music. But in fact she's listening to a playback of her own voice -- which, after years of heroin abuse and heavy drinking, had withered into an old woman's croak. Holiday seems to realize for the first time what she's done to herself: She looks devastated, her eyes wet, her teeth clamped down on her lower lip. She died later that year.
"Her voice was not what she wanted it to be," recalls Hinton, now 87, speaking over the phone from his home in Jamaica, New York. "I got a lot of flak for taking that picture, but I wanted to show how she felt about it."
Forty-five of Hinton's photographs are now on display at the Hollywood Art and Culture Center. Hinton is not a professional photographer per se. He's a jazz bassist whose career stretches back to the late Twenties, when he was a session man for various Chicago musicians, most notably the innovative pianist Art Tatum. In 1936 the famous and flamboyant singer Cab Calloway made Hinton part of his band, one of the hottest and highest-paid ensembles of its time. Hinton found himself in the company of bright young players such as Chu Berry, Dizzy Gillespie, Cozy Cole, Illinois Jacquet, and Ben Webster.
One of them -- Hinton can't remember who -- gave him a very nice, $25 Argus camera as a birthday present one year. It was the start of a major avocation for Hinton, who became not only a photographer but a chronicler of some 60 years of jazz history.
Hinton, who has played on more jazz records than perhaps anyone in the business, has been part of the inner circle of the jazz world for his entire adult life. His camera has captured everyone from Duke Ellington to Wynton Marsalis, usually at work recording, rehearsing, or playing.
"I had it in my mind to take pictures then of musicians the way we musicians see us, not the way photographers see us," Hinton says.
In Hinton's photographs the backdrops are often the same: the acoustic baffling of recording booths, the white walls of rehearsal spaces. And the props don't vary much. Musicians hold their instruments as they sit on chairs and scan the sheet music on the stands before them. Which is exactly what makes Hinton's modest black-and-white pictures so captivating. There are no lights set up to catch a perfect curl of smoke, no inspired camera angles, no heightened chiaroscuro. Though Hinton unarguably has a keen eye, a nice sense of composition, and a knack for seizing the moment, what he takes are essentially rather handsome snapshots. What Hinton saw, day in and day out, as a working jazz musician, is what his camera saw.
Walking around the exhibit is like hanging out with some of the most legendary names in jazz. There's the burly saxophonist Cannonball Adderly perched on a metal folding chair that hardly looks able to support his massive bulk. He smokes a cigarette with the same thick but nimble fingers that played the lighthearted bop that was his trademark.
Doc Cheatham, the aged trumpeter, is also here. He greets the camera with a big smile, a pipe between his crooked teeth, looking exactly like a man who's beaten the odds. While most trumpeters lose their breath by age 60, Cheatham only began to find his distinctive style as a solo player around the age of 70.
On a railroad platform in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, stand trombonist Tyree Glenn and trumpeter Chu Berry. Expected to become a major force in jazz, Berry was killed in a car accident at the age of 33. Hinton still has Berry's pipe and watch -- they were given to him by the trumpeter as he lay dying on the asphalt near his wrecked car.
In another photo are two more brilliant young men, the trumpeters Danny Barber and Dizzy Gillespie, sitting on a bench on a train in 1940. Bundled up in hats and overcoats, they've fallen asleep against each other. In another image, made in Nice almost 50 years later, a graying Gillespie sits surrounded by a group of French schoolchildren. Upon his instructions they've all put their fingers to their lips and puffed out their cheeks. But Diz has them beat: His elastic cheeks are stretched out so far that they threaten to engulf his nose.
For the younger generation, jazz is as much about style as music. Some of Hinton's pictures could serve as models of coolness. Basie's porkpie hat, for instance, is always set at the perfect angle. The pianist Bob James embodies the jazz-nerd aesthetic, his pale face offset by severe, black-framed glasses. Best of all is Gerry Mulligan, one of the original Mods: close-cropped hair, dark shades, slim tie, and checked blazer, with his baritone sax at his side.
For Hinton and his generation, however, jazz had other undercurrents, the most obvious one being racial segregation. A handful of Hinton's photographs are conscious documents of the color barriers he and his colleagues found in the South. Hinton poses various musicians in front of telling signs such as "Hamburgers, Hot Dogs, Lunches -- For Colored Only." One memorable picture shows a group of musicians, obviously having just arrived in town, hamming it up happily at the "colored entrance" of a large building.
"I wanted to catch that for the simple reason that today my children don't know that that happened," notes Hinton. "I wanted them to see what we had to go through, where we had to eat and sleep and where we couldn't eat and sleep. So I took pictures of what it was then."
It will come as news to no one that the very people who gave this nation one of its most important musical idioms were treated as second-class citizens for decades. But Hinton's pictures bring the issue into sharp focus, even when he's captured a scene as simple as the black singer Sarah Vaughan rehearsing with the white pianist Bob James.
"I wanted also to show that the world was racist, but we was musicians," explains Hinton, "and we didn't care what color you was. We was musicians."
-- Rafer Guzman
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