Monday, January 11, 2016

Francis Wolff - The Gift

© -  Steven A. Cerra - copyright protected; all rights reserved.

It is amazing to reflect back on the halcyon days of “modern” Jazz [1945-1965] without seeing it through imagery brought to mind by the photography of Francis Wolff. Without his work, many of the Jazz musicians that created the iconic Blue Note recordings from this period would be shrouded in obscurity.

Of course, Chuck Stewart, Herman Leonard, William Gottlieb, Bob Parent and many other skillful photographers were also making artistic contributions to Jazz Imagery at this time.

But their work did not emphasize the relaxed, informal and nonchalant qualities that featured so prominently in the photographs that Francis Wolff took during Blue Note recording sessions, many of which would prominently displayed on the label’s album covers.

What came out of Francis art was an almost introspective view of Jazz musicians dynamically exposed in the act of creation.

Francis Wolff gave us the gift of knowing what many, if not all,  of the musicians who created this marvelous music looked like while they were at work.

Yet, for all he did to make these Jazz musicians less obscure, surprisingly little is known of Francis Wolff or his life.

Born in Berlin in 1907 or 1908, he enjoyed a comfortable childhood in an environment of academia and the arts.  His father, a university mathematics professor, had earned a substantial amount of money on investments. His mother was reputed to be something of a Bohemian and imbued Frank with a taste for the modern and iconoclastic. By his teens, Frank had already discovered his lifelong loves: photography and jazz. At 15, he met Alfred Lion, who lived in the same neighborhood. Alfred was immediately struck by Wolff's worldly, cosmopolitan style of dress. Their shared passion for the new music called jazz was the foundation of a lifelong friendship.

After studying photography in Berlin, Wolff formed a partnership with Lion to buy jewelry wholesale and sell it in Spain. Fortunately for the future of jazz, this short-lived venture was a failure. In 1933, Lion moved on to South America and eventually to New York. Despite the rise of Nazi activity in Germany, Wolff, a Jew, stayed in Berlin, collecting records and pursuing a successful career as a photographer. When the danger became unavoidable, he caught the last direct boat from Berlin to New York in October 1939.

Frank moved into Alfred's small apartment, which was also the office and warehouse for the ten-month-old Blue Note Record label. As Blue Note grew, Frank managed its business affairs. Although photography was no longer his career, he lent his considerable skills to documenting the next twenty-eight years of historic Blue Note recording sessions.

Wolff was a shy, soft-spoken, and extremely private man, content to remain in the shadow of his dynamic partner. His contributions to Blue Note however, were considerable and crucial.

When Alfred Lion retired in 1967, Frank assumed the role of record producer, and his photographic activity ceased. He stayed at the helm of Blue Note until he died of a heart attack following surgery on March 8, 1971.

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