Monday, September 26, 2011

Ear Training: William Gottlieb Listens to Jazz

One of the great images from the 1940s is Billie Holiday singing full-throated, lovely and anguished. into shadowy space. In another, Thelonious Monk turns a little shyly to the camera above him, posing his hands on the keyboard. He withholds who-knows-what quixotic notions behind his half smile, his super-cool glasses, his jaunty beret. 

By these iconic photos, we know jazz greats almost as well as we know their music. These are just a few from "The Golden Age of Jazz: Photographs by William Gottlieb," a beautiful show visiting the Schumacher Gallery at Capital University in Columbus until November.

Gottlieb, who died in 2006, was known as "Mr. Jazz" around Washington, D.C., where in 1939 he got his start writing a jazz column in the Washington Post. He illustrated the column with his own photographs. But Gottlieb's interest in jazz took him in many directions. He also hosted a jazz radio program on WINX; he even managed to mastermind a jam session between the Count Basie and Bob Crosby bands when they were in town at the same time but playing at clubs catering to clientele divided by race.

The photographs at Schumacher picture  bebop and big band artists in New York clubs through the late '40s, when Gottlieb was a journalist for Downbeat. On the simplest level they are a documentary treasure trove. But we tend to love them simply, as images that grace the private alters we build to our gods and goddesses: Ella Fitzgerald, Cab Calloway,  Benny Goodman, Willie "The Lion" Smith, Sarah Vaughn,  Charlie Parker, Mel Torme, Duke Ellington, and their peers. 

Gottlieb was a master of black and white photography who made it his task to nail his compositions in no more than three exposures, given the high cost of film and flashbulbs. His success in lighting, in capturing nuance, the telling expression, and the pinnacle of a dramatic situation—all put viewers in a magical moment, inside the frame of unique experience.

We respond to Gottlieb's work with appreciation for its visual elegance and with awe for it subjects. But I think that we rarely stop to consider these portraits as pictures of people at work, of musicians doing what all musicians do. This body of work is full of content about the process of making music. 

Certainly some of the portraits focus on the sense or style of celebrity, as in the dressing room photograph of Duke Ellington, featuring his wardrobe, powders, pomades, and sense of elegance that fashioned his music and his personality equally. 

But we can compare that to the literally iconic photograph of young Frank Sinatra, hand on hip, gaze fixed on the far-away, standing alone at a recording microphone. "What a beauty shot!" we think. He is soulful and stylish, with his unknotted tie tucked into his trousers, with that combination of crisp and negligent appearance. He looks just like...the image of Frank Sinatra.

But the image probably arose directly from the man himself, who was actually present,  pictured at times like this when Gottlieb caught the singer not posing, but working. I think Sinatra's in the recording studio, listening to a playback take of a song he's developing. We think that singers work when their mouths are open. But here is Sinatra doing the job that's at least as important as vocalizing: He is listening critically to what he has already done, considering  adjustments for the next take in the long process of getting the sound of warm. natural emotion. I suspect that this is an "action" shot.                                                                                     

In the handsome photo of Woody Herman above, we see an emblematic image of a musician: He's playing his instrument with concentration. Since the subject is the famous Woody Herman, the photo is piquant for running against expectation, for we associate Herman with big bands—with his Herds—yet here he sits alone on the edge of a stage. He must be practicing, the individual and most fundamental activity of every musician. Practice entails both playing and listening. So this is a portrait of the famous leader and virtuoso when he plies the same fundamentals that a musician at any level must—facility on his instrument and acuity of ear

Of course there's no question of posing in this candid shot of Tommy Potter (bass) and Charlie Parker, two musicians on a gig. Potter's left hand's in position, his eyes presumably on his music. Parker's horn is in his mouth. But what are his eyes focusing on? He's not reading; he's likely to be improvising. His mind is working at a pace and intensity that almost outstrip his physical facility. Wide-eyed and focused far away/inside, Bird's expression reveals the intense loop of listening, thinking, and planning that fuels his lungs, tongue, and fingers. This isn't only a picture of Bird playing, but of Bird's penetration: He's creating and executing music.                                                                             

Gottlieb captures a similar expression on Bird's face when he and the trumpet player, Red Rodney, sit at a club and catch a Dizzy Gillespie engagement. We see Gillespie mirrored behind them, but we also get the intensity of the auditors' delight and concentration. They are in the audience, but Parker's body—hands-down, erect posture—and his face—wide-eyed, developing smile, mouth half-open—is absolutely the image of being "all ears." Rodney too, is enthralled by what he hears: he bends into the sound, and his expression is rapt as he listens. Both men are responding with their mouths as people do when they are closely following every note. They are in mental conversation with music and the musicians, and have closed out everything else. Everyone in a club hears music: Few make an activity of listening, like this, or being deep in conversation with it. 

In another picture of intense engagement, Gottlieb catches a Julliard student listening to trumpeter Howard McGhee.* As in the picture of Bird and Red Rodney, Gottlieb captures the physical experience of listening. Notice how the young man placed himself as close as possible to the performers, how he sags slightly into his chair so that the moment is all about eyes and ears. Davis's expression (for it is Miles Davis, a fact Gottlieb could not know until years later) can't be caught in a single word. Again, it's caught in intense focus of eyes, and open mouth. Does he admire McGhee? Does he like or dislike what he hears? Is he critically assessing every move, watching McGhee's embouchure, figuring out the details of his technique? Whatever is on his mind, he is listening intently. He is a musician working hard.

When Gottlieb took his pictures, he divested his subjects of anything indifferent, lukewarm, or despicable that they may have had in their daily lives, and he showed the hot or cool their music drew out of them. So when we see  all the glamor, dignity, beauty, and wit of Gottlieb's jazz subjects, we need to remember that when he took their photographs, he heard the music; these were never silent pictures for him, just as these were never silent people. Gottlieb was not a celebrity photographer. He was a jazz fan. 

We'll give the Gottlieb archive the depth of respect it's due when we keep the sound in the photographs. Gottlieb's legacy is greater than either the visual or documentary—though it is monumental as either one. He takes us deep into the experience of musicians. He does not merely illustrate or symbolize jazz with photos of the horn lifted to mouth or the hands on the keyboard. 

Gottlieb reveals the act of listening as it is performed. He shows how musicians relate listening to sound production; how listening relates to music study and learning, and how it relates musicians to one another. We should bring our ears with us when we look at his work, for the music is present in the photographs, and the dynamics in the musicians--not mere "personalities"-- portrayed.

(For comprehensive information about and images by William Gottlieb, see
Images of Holiday, Monk, Ellington, Sinatra, Potter and Parker from Smith Kramer Fine Art press packet.
Images of Woody Herman, Parker and Rodney, Davis and McGhee courtesy of Ed Gottlieb. 
*This view is not in the Smith Kramer show at the Schumacher Gallery. It is a similar but broader view that Gottlieb took on the same occasion, a view requested by the author and kindly provided by Ed Gottlieb.

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