Posed Improvisation

Jazz Lives
// Wa Liu

Jazz rooted itself in the American tradition by harmonizing sultry blues with European classical and combining African beats with Cajun rhythm. As the birthplace of jazz, New Orleans remained a hub for jazz music throughout the 20th century, but the style also spread north and west to New York and Chicago. The photographs of Lee Friedlander and Milt Hinton on display at the Yale University Art Gallery capture the lives of jazz musicians at home, in the studio and on the road.

The exhibit, “Jazz Lives,” places jazz music in a new frame by pursuing a fuller picture of the stories of these American musicians. Friedlander and Hinton take jazz out of structured performances in clubs and into homes, studios and streets, and, through their work, American jazz music is both personalized and publicized.

The display ranges from dramatic to intimate. Friedlander’s exhibit of photographs taken on trips to New Orleans from the 1950s to the 1990s is divided into three parts: “Portraits,” “Parades” and “Second Liners.” Each portrait places the subject in his or her home, conveying character through facial expression and inanimate surroundings. A 1958 up-close of Johnny St. Cyr shows the musician with his arms slung over his guitar, the shape of the instrument mirroring the curvature of his thin mustache. St. Cyr’s bulky guitar occupies most of the frame, but the Friedlander creates a visual relationship between the curve of the instrument and St. Cyr’s mustache, which pulled my attention to the musician and held it there. George “Kid Sheik” Colar swaps his trumpet for a cigar in a 1974 portrait. Here, Friedlander disconnects the musician and his instrument and pushes focus solely on Colar the man instead of Colar the trumpeter. Instruments seem less the necessary tool of the musician and more an aspect of character, a sense of personality.

Friedlander’s “Parades” and “Second Liners” capture the cultural community built around jazz. While I saw the bonds between musicians themselves in the parades, the photographs of the “second line,” which was the name given to people who danced along with the “main line” in brass band parades, showed the connections between musicians and their audiences. Friedlander’s “Second Liners” are alive. He photographs adults and children mid-song or mid-swing. Unlike the portraits, these works are in a documentary style and show jazz music spilling into the streets of New Orleans. The informality of such a photographic approach gave a sense of the improvisation and spontaneity than colored jazz music of the time.

The most recent performance at the exhibit, by a student band called Newspeak featuring Hans Bilger ’16 on bass, Eli Brown ’17 on trumpet, Alexander Dubovoy ’16 on the keys and Harvey Xia ’16 on the saxophone, created the kind of community between performers and audience members that Friedlander’s photographs illustrated. The band performed at the exhibit in the spirit of joint appreciation of community and art.

Hinton approached his body of work from the perspective of a musician. A bassist from the South, he followed jazz to New York City, and the selection of his photographs on display includes some iconic portraits of jazz greats Dizzy Gillespie, Billie Holiday and Aretha Franklin. Dizzy and his wonderfully pouched cheeks come to life in “Dizzy and Friends,” which shows the trumpeter with a group of fascinated children who try to puff their own cheeks. The piece echoes the relationships between musicians and audience that appear in Friedlander’s “Second Liners,” but here we see a more spontaneous performance. Holiday and Franklin are photographed instead in quiet moments, right before a recording session or a performance. The raw vulnerability of these moments — where these famous musicians are not lit up by the grandeur of the stage — tell unexpectedly intimate stories.

One wall of Hinton’s photographs shows musicians “In the Studio” — at work. And the opposing wall depicts “Life in New York,” where musicians are performing and at play. The contrast between the intimacy of the studios and the loud city bar scene presents fuller picture of the musicians’ “jazz lives.” But it’s in the context of the whole exhibition — through partying, performance and even private moments — that Hinton and Friedlander capture the completeness of the jazz tradition. Or maybe not completeness, but a sense of a complete moment, a clear window into the way jazz lived, and ruled its own era.

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