Friday, September 26, 2014


Harry "Sweets" Edison, Toronto, Dec. 1988

HARRY "SWEETS" EDISON LIVED UP TO HIS NICKNAME. He was a terribly sweet man, happy to indulge a very inexperienced young photographer as I sweated through an assignment that would change my career.

At the end of 1988 I had been taking photos for three years, and wanted to do it full time. At that time, the steadiest source of employment for freelancers was NOW magazine, a free weekly founded in the mold of the Village Voice - very local, very lefty, and at that point very profitable. My then-girlfriend had a job there as a music critic (a job I'd applied for but failed to get) and she pulled some strings with the photo editor, Irene Grainger, to get me a try-out.

My first assignment was a live shoot - Harry "Sweets" Edison playing at (long-defunct downtown jazz club) East 85th. I had been shooting jazz for a couple of years by this point, mostly avant-garde stuff like Cecil Taylor, Charlie Haden or the World Saxophone Quartet, and while I didn't know much about Sweets, I knew that he'd played with Count Basie, and that he'd been around back when jazz was pop music.

Harry "Sweets" Edison, Toronto, Dec. 1988

I'd done a lot of live shooting, but I wasn't comfortable with it at all, and struggled to get printable negatives from my Pentax Spotmatic and its very general light meter. The other photographers at NOW - people like Laurence Acland, Chris Nicholls, David Laurence, Anne Levenston and Paul Till - had experience I lacked by at least a decade, and had set a pretty high standard for a newsprint publication, especially with concert photography.

I'd shot enough jazz, though, to know that using a flash wasn't generally appreciated by club owners, patrons or (especially) musicians, so I shot my roll that night knowing that the dim club light would result in some pretty dark negatives, even with 3200 ASA Kodak film in my camera. The shot above hasn't seen the light of day since the night I took it, and there's no way that I could have produced a workable image back then without a further quarter century of experience - and a full version of Photoshop.

I panicked a bit, and during a break asked the manager if I could get a minute or so with Harry to shoot a quick portrait. A few minutes in the manager's cramped office were arranged, where I did my best with the more abundant but far less flattering overhead fluorescent lighting.

I was much more comfortable with my portrait work, and hoped that, as long as the shot was made in the club where he played, on the night he was on stage, readers would be cool.

Harry "Sweets" Edison, Toronto, Dec. 1988

Irene didn't agree. The live shots I handed in were pretty dim; newsprint technology was still unforgiving at that point, and she knew that an excess of black would look like mud on their pages. The portraits, while much better, didn't fit the brief: She wanted live photos.

The shoot ran - I don't remember whether it was the live shots or a portrait - but while I continued to sell photos on spec to NOW (sales brokered by my girlfriend, I'm sure,) I didn't get another real assignment for almost eight months.

I ended up working steadily for NOW for over a decade. The last photos I handed in to Irene were portraits of Tobey Maquire, at which point I was chafing against the paper's politics and went off to work for their competition, where the newsroom was full of friends, including the best man at my wedding.

NOW made it possible for me to make a living, build a studio and a reputation, but by the time I left I'd relied on it so much that when it came time to find other clients when I lost that steady paycheck, I didn't know what to do. I never got the same steady work from NOW's competition, no matter how many friends I knew there. A lesson learned.

For a couple of years in the mid-'90s I (secretly) wrote a column for the competition under a pseudonym - a regular feature reviewing old jazz and blues records, which were being reissued in a torrent by the major labels during their last period of prosperity. By this point I knew very well who Harry "Sweets" Edison was, and ended up owning countless records featuring him - with Basie, in the Jazz At The Philharmonic orchestra, and on his own, though one of my favorites is a record he made with Ben Webster for Columbia in the '50s.

I handed in my last photo to NOW in 1999. Harry "Sweets" Edison died the same year.

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