THE DEATH LAST WEEK OF PIANIST CECIL TAYLOR GOT ME THINKING ABOUT
|Joe Bowie, Toronto, 1988|
discovering jazz, back when artists like Taylor were still regulars at jazz festivals. Digging through my negative files, I found my shots of Taylor's solo concert at the DuMaurier Jazz Festival - just a few frames at the beginning of a roll, taken on a sweltering summer evening in an intimate, recently opened theatre built out of a former ice house by the lake.
The shutter on my Spotmatic rang out like a gun cocking in the darkened space, attracting dirty looks from audience members. I only barely knew what I was doing, so I'm still amazed my film caught Taylor's shirt sticking to his back in the heat, and the thumb of his outstretched hand targeting a single key of the piano. I had only just discovered the music after several false starts, and I could only barely understand what Taylor was doing, but I was enthralled with all these wild, unpredictable new sounds and intent on capturing as much as I could with my camera.
|James Blood Ulmer, Toronto, 1986|
|Cecil Taylor, Toronto, 1987|
I got into jazz in a roundabout way, starting with Charlie Christian's sessions with Benny Goodman's small groups as a teenager, and then the funk-influenced, punk-approved post-Ornette Coleman records of Joe Bowie's Defunkt and James Blood Ulmer. I photographed Ulmer at a mini festival held in a Queen West club like I was shooting a punk band, all harsh flash and kinetic blur slammed together.
Working from recommendations made by my friend Tim Powis and each month's new issue of The Wire
, I began listening to a lot of the more challenging artists touring and recording at the time, veterans of R&B groups and free jazz and the New York loft scene. At the same time I tried to play catch up with all of the music that had come before that when artists like Jimmy Smith or Lee Konitz or Clifford Jordan
or Dizzy Gillespie
would pass through town. I almost always brought along my camera.
|Hamiet Bluiett, World Saxophone Quartet, Toronto, 1987|
|Charlie Haden, Toronto, 1987|
|Jimmy Smith, Toronto, 1987|
It's hard to believe, but the old arguments about "traditional versus avant garde" were still being fought over then, even while the veterans of the free improvisation movements of the '60s were becoming as established and venerable as the musicians who'd made their name playing bop after the collapse of the big bands in the '50s. Sometimes those arguments would be embodied in a single musician like Archie Shepp, who had traded in his dashiki for a tailored suit to play blues, spirituals, ballads and standards.
|Archie Shepp & Horace Parlan, Toronto, 1988|
|Lee Konitz, Toronto, 1989|
|Abdullah Ibrahim, Toronto, 1990|
|Oliver Jones, Toronto, 1988|
|Miles Davis, Toronto, 1990|
This was the last long moment when jazz musicians got signed to major labels and jazz concerts were reviewed in daily newspapers. It was serious music, taken seriously, and every major city worth its tourism bureau had a jazz festival sponsored by a major corporation, featuring actual jazz artists and not blues groups, aging pop singers or oddball rock acts. I might have missed the last tours by giants like Ellington and Basie, but there were still legends around, though they could be as inaccessible as rock stars.
I had my obligatory Miles Davis experience, on the trumpeter's last tour before his death. Waiting with the other photographers backstage at Massey Hall to be ushered out to shoot our half song, I heard Richard Flohill, the promoter, warn us that we'd better put on our long lens. I knew what he meant, and as soon as we were in front of the stage Miles retreated to the back, to hide behind the guitarist with his trumpet or stab at a rack of keyboards to puzzling effect. Miles hated the media, and hated making our jobs easier.
|Joey Baron, Bill Frisell Quartet, Toronto, 1988|
|Bobby Previte, NYC, 1990|
|Ronald Shannon Jackson, Toronto, 1989|
Shooting live jazz was never easy - the light was invariably dim, vantage points hard to find, and audience members predictably hostile to a photographer blocking their view or competing with the music with their shutter. (After the Ulmer experiments, I never shot with a flash, knowing how most musicians hated having their concentration shattered with the bursts of light.)
The biggest challenge of all was shooting a drummer - they were at the back of the stage, often in the poorest light, and moving constantly. With Claude Ranger
, I worked around this by bringing my own lights and shooting him at a soundcheck. The rest of the time I had to work at the edge of acceptable film speeds and my own competence as a printer to get decent shots of drummers. Some of these shots have only become worth seeing today, with three decades of experience and the wizardry of Photoshop.
|Sun Ra Arkestra, Toronto, 1987|
|Craig Harris, Toronto, 1989|
|Randy Weston, Toronto, 1989|
|David Murray, Toronto, 1988|
I was on the steep side of a learning curve when I took these photos, both as a photographer and a jazz fan, and every new show was a challenge for my ears and my eyes. I like to think that some of that excitement and energy comes through in these photos, most shot thirty years ago or more, at the last moment when jazz had a place somewhere adjacent to the mainstream of the culture, where it could riff on what was happening there and have its running commentary heard.
Several of these photos ended up on the wall of a gallery - my first group show, organized by the late Paul Hoeffler
for the 1988 jazz festival. It was an encouraging moment, and might have had something to do with my decision to pursue photography as a career. I gradually stopped shooting jazz shows, however, preferring to try and get portraits of musicians and not hunching around on the floor annoying other patrons instead of enjoying the show.
It was a long time ago, or at least it seems so today. Looking back, I caught many of these people either during their last stretch of robust personal and artistic health, or not long before they were gone. A deep breath, and here we go...
Cecil Taylor died in Brooklyn on April 5, 2018. Charlie Haden died in Los Angeles on July 11, 2014. Jimmy Smith died in Scottsdale, AZ on February 8, 2005. Horace Parlan died in Korsør, Denmark on February 23, 2017. Ronald Shannon Jackson died in Ft. Worth, TX on October 19, 2013. Miles Davis died in Santa Monica, CA on September 28, 1991. Sun Ra (aka Herman Blount) died in Birmingham, AL on May 30, 1993.