Daily Picture Show

Blue Notes, Cool Cats, Francis Wolff And Jimmy Katz

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When the jazz label Blue Note Records was formed 70 years ago, jazz had a sound, but hardly an identifiable face. Although the music was known and beloved by its followers, it wasn't until photographers like Francis Wolff entered the scene that the faces of jazz emerged — and become iconic. Wolff, a refugee from Nazi Germany, was the eyes of the fledgling label beginning in the late 1930s. Initially intended as studio documentation, his black-and-white photographs became Blue Note's go-to marketing materials.

  • Miles Davis, rehearsal at Birdland, New York City, May 1952
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    Miles Davis, rehearsal at Birdland, New York City, May 1952
    Francis Wolff/Courtesy of Blue Note Records
  • Herbie Hancock, Rudy Van Gelder Studio, Englewood Cliffs, N. J., Dec. 24, 1964
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    Herbie Hancock, Rudy Van Gelder Studio, Englewood Cliffs, N. J., Dec. 24, 1964
    Francis Wolff/Courtesy of Blue Note Records
  • Thad Jones, cover photo session for The Magnificent Thad Jones, Manhattan, July 1956
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    Thad Jones, cover photo session for The Magnificent Thad Jones, Manhattan, July 1956
    Francis Wolff/Courtesy of Blue Note Records
  • John Coltrane, Rudy Van Gelder Studio, Hackensack, N. J., Sept. 15, 1957
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    John Coltrane, Rudy Van Gelder Studio, Hackensack, N. J., Sept. 15, 1957
    Francis Wolff/Courtesy of Blue Note Records
  • Art Blakey and Hank Mobley, Rudy Van Gelder Studio, Englewood Cliffs, N. J., Feb. 7, 1960
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    Art Blakey and Hank Mobley, Rudy Van Gelder Studio, Englewood Cliffs, N. J., Feb. 7, 1960
    Francis Wolff/Courtesy of Blue Note Records
  • Fats Navarro, WOR Studios, New York City, Sept. 26, 1947
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    Fats Navarro, WOR Studios, New York City, Sept. 26, 1947
    Francis Wolff/Courtesy of Blue Note Records
  • Dianne Reeves, Clinton Studios, New York City, April 1996
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    Dianne Reeves, Clinton Studios, New York City, April 1996
    Francis Wolff/Courtesy of Blue Note Records
  • Les Paul and Pat Martino, Sorcerer Sound, New York, June 1966
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    Les Paul and Pat Martino, Sorcerer Sound, New York, June 1966
    Francis Wolff/Courtesy of Blue Note Records
  • Andrew Hill at home, New Jersey, 2005
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    Andrew Hill at home, New Jersey, 2005
    Francis Wolff/Courtesy of Blue Note Records
  • Jason Moran, Village Vanguard, New York City, Feb. 13, 2009
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    Jason Moran, Village Vanguard, New York City, Feb. 13, 2009
    Francis Wolff/Courtesy of Blue Note Records
  • Elvin Jones, Avatar Studios, New York City, September 1997
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    Elvin Jones, Avatar Studios, New York City, September 1997
    Francis Wolff/Courtesy of Blue Note Records

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Now, for its 70th anniversary, Blue Note is looking back through its notably long history with a new book, Blue Note Photography. Divided in two sections, the book compares the jazz world of Francis Wolff with that of contemporary Blue Note photographer Jimmy Katz. To get a more personal perspective on the book, NPR jazz savant Felix Contreras caught up with Katz.

FELIX CONTRERAS: Which have you been longer, a photographer or a jazz fan?
JIMMY KATZ: I have been photographing since the age of 7, but I became a jazz fan in high school when Nat Hentoff, the father of one of my classmates, gave me a ticket to hear Thelonious Monk and Art Blakely and the Jazz Messengers at Carnegie Hall. That concert changed the world as I knew it.

FC: You're stepping into huge shoes by doing Blue Note photos. Kinda like a saxophonist remaking "A Love Supreme." How did you go about putting your own personal stylistic stamp on this project?
JK: I have always tried to make interesting images that are provocative and intense, regardless of what the subject matter is, whether jazz musicians, sideshow performers or the race car and rocket makers who leave their mark on the Western salt flats. I have always been interested in the tension between the spontaneous moment and a formal and composed aesthetic.

FC: You're known as a jazz photographer but your eye certainly catches many other nonjazz images. What is it about jazz musicians that sets them apart from your other subjects?
JK: While I am intrigued by all who are passionate about what they do, I have always believed that jazz represents the highest form of improvised artistic expression. Some people say that if you take all the arts and list the 100 most creative artists of the last 100 years, half of them would be jazz musicians. Many of them, even lesser-known figures to the general public, profoundly changed the way their instruments are played, extending their influence well beyond jazz and affecting other genres of music and even art in general without taking any particular credit for it. Can you really play the drums without dealing with what Elvin Jones developed? Can you play any form of improvised piano and not be influenced by Ahmad Jamal and Keith Jarrett? You cannot play music on Planet Earth and not be influenced by Ornette Coleman, even if you reject him. So the key to my work is my deep respect for the musicians.

FC: In the introduction to your section of the book you mention attending a recoding session with the pianist Andrew Hill, who was dying of cancer at the time. You write that it became a rather intimate moment with you perched below his piano. What do you do to concentrate on the aesthetics of the moment as a photographer rather than losing yourself in the music as a jazz fan?
JK: When I'm in a musical context, whether a recording session or a concert, the intense concentration of the performers on what they do musically motivates and inspires me to the same thing visually. The external distractions somehow melt away, and the only thing that's left in the room is me and the subject oblivious to the world around us.

FC: Was Francis Wolff an early inspiration for you?
JK: His work was and is an inspiration to me as is the work of William Gottlieb, Bill Claxton and of course the grand master Herman Leonard.

FC: What is it about Wolff's photographs that draw you in?
JK: Frances Wolff's images of the legendary Blue Note sessions are so intrinsically linked with the musical legacy of the label that visually we only experience these musical moments through his eyes. In a sense his photographic statement is the main one that defines that period of jazz in New York. For me, as a photographer and a fan, it's incredible to think that his portrait of Herbie Hancock, for instance, is not just great on its own, but that it comes from the legendary "Maiden Voyage session," which validates it even more. This is true of countless other images.

FC: And how do you NOT get caught up in accidentally replicating his work when Blue Note hired you to photograph their photography sessions?
JK: I think my photographic work at the Blue Note sessions defines the present-day era the way his work defined his. While my mode of photographing is very different from Wolff's, the jazz context inevitably creates parallels. It is also true that the editors of the book deliberately selected those images of mine that would emphasize the parallels. However, I think if people go to my Web site they will get a better understanding of my work and the full range of work that I do. It's www.jimmykatz.com.

FC: Did you ever meet Wolff? If so what was he like?
JK: Unfortunately I never met Frances Wolff, who died in 1970.

FC: In the book Blue Note President Bruce Lundvall calls you the "spiritual descendant" of Francis Wolff. Are you OK with that kind of comparison?
JK: Whether I'm photographing the eccentrics of the American West, sideshow performers or jazz musicians, I have always tried to make strong and vibrant images, and I am always flattered when I am compared to great photographers. I'm happy when my work resonates with other people.

FC: Do you have a favorite Francis Wolff image?
JK: Yes. I love his iconic image of John Coltrane from the "Blue Trane" session.

FC: Has there ever been a moment when you wished you could pick up and work with a saxophone the way you do a camera?
JK: Oh, no. Anybody who is musical and thinks they can reach the level of a great jazz musician if they just practice enough is sadly mistaken. The people who play this music have incredible natural gifts, augmented by years of tenacity and hard work. Believe me the world doesn't need another sad-assed saxophonist!

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