Friday, July 3, 2015

Mal & Marion

Marion Brown & Mal Waldron, Toronto, Oct. 1988

MAL WALDRON WAS A PERSONAL FAVORITE OF A LOCAL JAZZ PROMOTER, Serve Sloimovits, who brought him to town twice in 1988, the first time to record a record for his label. Serge was the best jazz booker in the city at the time - his portion of the DuMaurier Jazz Festival was always the most interesting. I got to know him, and asked if I could take some portraits of Waldron when he came to town in spring of that year.

I was still a neophyte jazz fan, but the one thing I did know about Waldron was that he was Billie Holiday's accompanist during the last years of her life. He even made an appearance in the last stanza of Frank O'Hara's poem "The Day Lady Day Died:"
and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of
leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT
while she whispered a song along the keyboard
to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing
By the 1980s, having passed from the more conventional mode of his work with Holiday through an avant-garde period, he'd synthesized his style to an occasionally austere, even dignified sound. I didn't completely understand it at the time; I was a fan of Don Pullen's pyrotechnic style, and Waldron's meditative and even repetitive lines sounded a bit ponderous to me.

Mal Waldron, Toronto, March 1988

I photographed him in the unfinished rooms at the top of the Bamboo, with my film pushed to a high, grainy ISO. He was friendly but reserved; I'm sure he was wondering why I was so eager to get his portrait. I might be projecting, but I see a bit of that wary curiosity in the frame above.

The years 1987 and 1988 were, as I've said before, ones with a steep learning curve; I shot a lot and struggled to learn. Live photography was a particular technical challenge, especially in the low light where jazz seemed to be played. I shot a roll of Waldron at the BamBoo that night, and this is the only shot that captures anything of the man. He was a heavy smoker, with the inevitable consequences.

Mal Waldron, BamBoo Club, Toronto, March 1988

One of my portraits ended up on Evidence, the record Serge put out, and a few months later Waldron returned again, this time for a duet gig with alto player Marion Brown. Either the light was better or I'd improved just enough to get one more serviceable frame from the gig than seven months before.

Mal Waldron, BamBoo Club, Toronto, Oct. 1988
Marion Brown, BamBoo Club, Toronto, Oct. 1988

Brown's career was as varied as Waldron's; he'd made his debut in the New York avant garde of the '60s, playing on records by John Coltrane and Archie Shepp before moving to Europe. He would write music for movies and plays and perform on a Harold Budd record before teaming up with Waldron for two duet records and frequent concerts in the '80s.

Brown had a plaintive, almost queasy tone that contrasted beautifully with Waldron's stately chording. Hearing the two of them together helped me understand Waldron's solo work a bit better, but it would be years before I was able to appreciate it's meditative surface and pick up on the playful side concealed beneath. The child's melody "Inch Worm" was a tune that Waldron would do alone and with Brown at the time; I've come to love all the versions he recorded.

Mal Waldron & Marion Brown, Toronto, Oct. 1988

I asked Serge if I could attempt another portrait session with Waldron and Brown, and ended up in the room upstairs in the BamBoo again, this time with my new Mamiya C330 and a light; I'd bumped my head against the limitations of available light and wanted more control in my portraits. Waldron seemed surprised to see me again, but cheerfully sat for me with Brown on an old couch that had taken residence in the room since our last shoot.

One thing I remember vividly from the shoot is clambering up on a rickety tubular metal chair while I worked, trying to get a different perspective on the two men. While perched there uneasily, the chair folded out from underneath me, sending me to the ground and slamming into the back of my head as I fell. Waldron and Brown eyed me with just enough concern to be perceptible as I rubbed my skull and struggled up from the floor, but that sort of respectful distance was the dominant tone of the shoot as I recall it today.

Marion Brown, Toronto, Oct. 1988

I took most of a roll of Waldron with my Pentax, which unfortunately came out thin and dark after developing. I took a few frames of Brown alone at the end of the roll in the C330, which were far more successful. They're simple, artless portraits, but they capture both men with a mix of caution and dignity.

I think I was on to something with these portraits - a simple, basic style of shooting that I only rarely attempted again; truthfully, I've only begun trying to shoot this way again recently. None of my second portrait session with Waldron and Brown ever saw print; this is the first time they've been published anywhere.

Mal Waldron died in Brussels on December 2, 2002.

Marion Brown died in Florida on October 18, 2010.


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