Friday, July 17, 2015


Steve Lacy, Toronto, April 1990

I SUPPOSE JAZZ HAS ALWAYS STRUGGLED TO SURVIVE, but at the turn of the '90s in Toronto, it was painful to watch venues and promoters struggle to find venues. This was, ironically, when the music was undergoing probably its last rally as a commercial music, when major labels still had jazz divisions and jazz festivals still featured jazz musicians.

Clubs were closing all the time here, though, and promoters were desperate to find places to book gigs, which is probably how soprano sax player Steve Lacy, a veteran player for over three decades, ended up in the backroom of Clinton's, a slightly shabby tavern in Toronto's Koreatown.

Lacy was a big influence on my friend Jane Bunnett, so I made an effort to show up during the soundcheck, where I obviously convinced him to sit for a portrait. I remain puzzled about my motivations in trying to collect portraits of so many jazz musicians from the late '80s into the early '90s. I obviously loved the music, and perhaps I had an idea that I was capturing a vital period in its history - which would be giving me too much credit, I suspect - or maybe I thought that there was a real market out there for this kind of portrait work.

Steve Lacy certainly wasn't a minor figure. He was prolific, with at least 120 albums under his own name and countless more with frequent collaborators such as Mal Waldron, Roswell Rudd, Gil Evans, Evan Parker and others. He had a deal at the time with Novus, the jazz subsidiary of RCA, which meant that the pace of his record releases only slightly increased during this period. He had an enviable spot somewhere between the mainstream and the avant-garde, and was considered a major interpreter of Thelonious Monk.

Steve Lacy, Toronto, April 1990

Clinton's might have been a bit of a dump, but they had these banquettes upholstered in red vinyl that made for a natural place to do my shoot with Lacy. I had obviously brought a light along, though despite the flash bounced into an umbrella I used high ISO film to encourage the grain and contrast I loved so much at the time. I shot a whole roll of Lacy and ended up pleased with the results, especially the saturated red background that popped against Lacy's grey suit.

I've looked through my negative files thoroughly, and unless I've missed something, it seems I didn't take any live shots of Lacy. It was at around this time that I had a conversation with Brock May, a photographer whose jazz shots I admired quite a bit, who told me that he'd found that shooting shows got in the way of actually listening to them, so he'd been doing a lot less of it.

It really struck me at the time, so it's possible that I took him to heart that night and, sure that I'd gotten a good portrait, left my cameras at home and just enjoyed Lacy's show. In any case, to make up for it here's some video of Lacy performing at around the same time I took these photos.

Steve Lacy died in Boston on June 4, 2004.

AN APPEAL: This blog is celebrating its first anniversary, and hard use has taken its toll on my old HP scanner, which now only produces clear scans on a narrow strip on the right margin of its glass. I'm on the market for a new scanner, but the only comparable replacement costs several hundred dollars beyond my budget, so I'm asking anyone who's enjoyed what I've been doing here - and wants to see more - if they can chip in and help. There's a PayPal button up near the top, and anything would be appreciated. Also, if you feel moved, please click on my links - a small percentage of anything you buy helps fund this blog. Thank you so much in advance.


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