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'Jazz Lives': An Exhibit Of Two Iconic Photographers

We are one lucky nation to have a homegrown musical form, and cultural force, like jazz. Fortune continued to smile by giving us Milt Hinton (1910-2000) and Lee Friedlander (born 1934), two homegrown photographers with unique visual styles but a shared love of jazz. Finally, we are lucky in this state to have "Jazz Lives," an exhibition at Yale University Art Gallery that offers the best work of both men and an inside-out look at "our" musical legacy.

Hinton, a longtime jazz bassist who played with everyone from Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington to Billie Holliday and Aretha Franklin, gives us the "inside" look. Having started his musical career in the 1930s in the clubs of Chicago before moving to New York, Hinton came of age alongside jazz. His first steady gig was with Cab Calloway, whose band he joined in 1936 and toured with for 20 years. He was also an in-demand studio musician, which provided steady work accessible to his home in Queens.

Regardless of whether he was on the road or in the studio, Hinton took a camera wherever he went, and even kept a camera on his music stand. His photographs, says David Berger, conservator of the Milt Hinton Archive, provide "an insider's perspective. It's backstage, it's on the road, it's part of a scene."

The photographs on view at Yale, taken between 1938 and 1981, show Hinton to be a collector of faces, characters and portraits. He went about his business methodically "collecting" his friends and bandmates, not unlike how Carl Van Vechten captured the principals of the Harlem Renaissance. Here they all are: Milt Jackson, Dinah Washington, Percy Heath, Horace Silver, Quincy Jones, Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Cannonball Adderly and a Who's Who of others. The shot of Armstrong in 1954 is particularly nice, taken in a hotel room, his pants unbuttoned to give his girth relief, a cigarette dangling from one hand as he toyed happily with a stereo system. Many pictures taken in bars show the races mixing freely, particularly at New York's Beefsteak Charlie's, but these are counterbalanced by shots of musicians with signs in the background warning: "Colored Entrance," "For Colored Only," or "Motel for Colored." Others are just humane documents — Gillespie sleeping on a train or wowing some French kids, an aging Duke Ellington behind the keys at a Yale concert in 1972, a Young Aretha in (yes) high heels.

The standouts are a haunting studio shot of Sam Cooke in 1960, seen through a window of a sound booth, and many of Billie Holliday in her final recording session, before her sudden death in 1959. The best of these find her nursing a cocktail glass; though 44, she looked three decades older.

Friedlander's photographs are, one could say, a fan's notes. Despite being a spectator, he achieved a different sort of intimacy in the shots on view here, taken from 1957 to 1982. As part of a "team" that included Richard Allen and William Russell, co-founders of Tulane University's Archive of New Orleans Jazz, he took photographs while they conducted interviews and made field recordings. Thus, he was able to capture some of the only images of legendary New Orleans jazz musicians in spaces where they felt comfortable. None were posed on stage, but caught while talking or going about their lives. Perhaps because they weren't accustomed to having their photographs taken, some of the sitters look self-conscious and shy, which makes for a touching humility; they're not playing to a crowd or hamming it up on stage. Many are shot without their instruments, their defenses down. It seems safe to wager that this is the only time anyone asked them to pose for a portrait. Some are unbelievably touching, such as the one of Alice Zeno in 1957 and Blind Freddy Small in 1958, both living in abject but proud poverty.

Friedlander also worked with Sandra and Alan Jaffe who founded Preservation Hall in 1961. Ben Jaffe, creative director of Preservation Hall, said, "[Friedlander] had an outsider's perspective, not being from New Orleans, but his photographs have jazz swagger to them."

His shot of Young Tuxedo Brass Band in 1959 is masterful, showing an all-black troupe of players marching through an all-black neighborhood in front of a billboard featuring a white woman with a bottle of Pepsi, that says, "Look Smart." It's a shot reminiscent of Robert Frank's "The Americans."

"Jazz Lives" is intelligently installed by three Yale student curators who've divided it cleanly between two rooms, with no overreaching attempt to find some unifying thread between the two different photographers. Indeed, it's a measure of the richness of jazz that these two photographers, who surveyed the same scene over a similar span of three decades, did not overlap in their coverage.

>>"Jazz Lives: The Photographs Of Lee Friedlander And Milt Hinton" is on exhibition through Sept. 7 at Yale University Art Gallery, 1111 Chapel St., New Haven. Information: 203-432-0600 and artgallery.yale.edu.

Performances and talks are planned in the gallery throughout the run of this exhibition, including Craig Hartley Trio, April 24, 5:30 p.m.; Milt Hinton: Images and Basslines, talk by Brian Torff, Fairfield University music professor, April 30, 12:30 p.m.; and Oscar Pettiford Project, jazz quartet, June 12, 5:30 p.m.

Copyright © 2015, CT Now
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