Monday, October 25, 2021

Part 1 - Herb Snitzer's Glorious Days and Nights - A Jazz Memoir

 © Copyright ® Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“I came to jazz through art — painting and photography, the American Abstract Expressionists, beat poets, Greenwich Village wanderings — as a young and very impressionable artist living in New York City. I was drawn to the music, as I was to my art, initially, by the spirit and joy that I felt every time I heard jazz; this multifaceted and highly original music lifted my soul and spoke to my heart, much as Mozart did, and the initial feelings have not left me.”

- Herb Snitzer

Although the Jazz universe is primarily a musical one, many other arts orbit within its sun.

Poetry, literature, criticism, movies and documentaries, painting and photography all occupy a planetary space within its cosmos.

Clubs, concert halls, sea cruises, cinemas and festivals all provide a nexus for the arts to engage and intertwine and visual displays, radio broadcasts and television programs further enrich the interconnectedness of the arts with Jazz.

I’ve always been fascinated by the process of how someone from another art form finds his or her way into the Jazz path and personal memoirs are an excellent source for revealing these voyages of discovery.

In this regard the photographer Herb Snitzer's Glorious Days and Nights - A Jazz Memoir [2011] explains how he became involved with Jazz following the Second World War in his Preface, Introduction and Chapter highlights and I thought it might be fun to share these with you in a multipart feature on the blog as one example of how other arts fuse with Jazz and enhance the way in which we experience the music.


“The early Eisenhower years were filled with contradictions; apathy and bus boycotts, conservatism and radicalism. The middle-class white world was recovering from Joe McCarthy; blacklisted writers were using phony names to get work in Hollywood and London; Jack Kerouac and Robert Frank roamed America; and Roy Cohn remained evil. By 1957, the year I moved to New York, the Montgomery, Alabama, buses had been integrated (December 21, 1956).There were growing signs that black America was no longer going to be continuously embarrassed, no longer going to be content in living second-class lives. This "unrest" as the New York Times so quaintly called it, burst upon white America in 1955, when Ms. Rosa Parks was arrested for not giving up her bus seat, setting off a chain of events, reverberating still.

Amazingly, Judge Franklin Johnson, a Republican-appointed federal judge, ruled that his state's busing laws were unconstitutional. A truly brave act on his part. By December 5, twenty-five-year-old Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was elected president of the Montgomery Improvement Association. The boycott began.

The United States has come a long way in internally destroying attitudes that suggest that an entire race by being of a different color should be enslaved with little or no rights, no protections. Attitudes die hard. Between 1882 and 1955 five thousand lynchings were recorded. There were, on average, sixty-seven blacks lynched each year during the first twenty years of the twentieth century. This fact was not lost on the collective black consciousness, and it found musical expression in the haunting ballad "Strange Fruit," sung by the great jazz vocalist Billie Holiday. "Southern Tree bear strange fruit / Blood on the leaves and blood on the root, / Black body swinging in the southern breeze / Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees."

There is another rendition of this song sung by the great Nina Simone that will chill the spine. Each version is a testament to the greatness of the song and the singer. In fairness, not all southerners were or are evil; too many, however, in positions of influence, did little to stop the lynchings. Too many doctors, lawyers, and judges of the twenties, thirties, and forties were intimidated by members of the KKK who were also in positions of power and influence. It was a sad time in America.

Much has been written about the unanticipated changes that came about after the Second World War relating to increased racial awareness, the internationalization of black music, sensitivity toward minorities, and so forth. But the dark side continued for many years. In the July 1939 issue of the Journal of Negro Education—while Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Fletcher Henderson, and other noted black artists were wowing audiences (segregated in the South)—Dr. Ralph Bunche of the United Nations prophetically and chillingly wrote, "Unless the Negro can develop and quickly, organization and leadership, endowed with broad social perspective and foresighted analytical intelligence, the Black citizen of America may soon face the dismal prospect of reflecting upon the tactical errors of the past from the gutters of the black ghettoes and concentration camps of the future." His use of the phrase "concentration camps" stunned me. The concentration camps of the Nazis were still relatively unknown to the world for another four years. Or were they?

The great jazz trumpet player Miles Davis once remarked that if white America knew what many blacks were thinking it would scare them half to death. Miles was always one for overstatement, but I cannot discount Miles Davis's personal views of white America. If I were black, living within a hopeless or what I perceived to be a hopeless situation, told by the larger society that I was worthless, second best, unnecessary, eventually I would relate to the larger society in ways which were less calm and other than law abiding. Anger and frustration found their way into the music of the 1950s, 1960s, and i1970s: In the words of Langston Hughes, "Old cop just keeps on 'MOP! MOP ... BE-BOP ... MOPl That's where BE-BOP comes from, beaten right out of some Negroes' heads into them horns and saxophones and piano keys that plays it..."

A special nod goes to two people not directly connected to the jazz world but whose lives were exemplary and whose dreams continue to connect people of goodwill: Marian Anderson and Paul Robeson. Early on they both spoke and sang out for freedom and dignity, equality and self-respect. They are kindred spirits to Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and Sarah Vaughan. They have left a legacy that deserves our continuous attention. We owe them an enormous thank you.

I also want to thank my wife, the painter Carol Dameron; thanks to Ed and Gail Snitzer for their unwavering support; longtime jazz friends, Dan Morgenstern and Jerry Smokler; the cultural historian Dr. Benjamin Cawthra, Cynthia Sesso, Gretchen and Barry Singer, Ellen and Burton Hersh, Babs Reingold, and Jim Wightman. A special thanks goes to New York Times best-selling author Peter Golenbock, a dear friend and ultimate professional. Many, many thanks.


The question hangs out there like gently swaying laundry. "Why am I, a middle-class humanist white guy so engrossed in the world(s) of African Americans and their drive for freedom and civil rights?" My response is always the same: inequality for one is inequality for all. Racial hatred toward one is racial (ethnic) hatred toward all others.

My parents were pogrommed out of the Ukraine by the dreaded Cossacks so many years ago — they are both dead — yet their stories remain as vivid today as when I first heard them. How dreadfully frightened, alone, and small a black child must have felt in those same years at the beginning of the twentieth century, especially growing up in the South where I now live and work. But does this really explain why my commitment to civil rights and liberties and my sustaining love of jazz remain full-blown, as strong now as forty years ago? My overall feelings about justice, equality, freedom, and the deeply held belief in all people being equal were formed in the late forties, early fifties—my teenage years, those days of Emmitt Till, Brown v. Board of Education, Joe McCarthy, Martin Luther King Jr., civil rights demonstrations, and marches for freedom, dignity, and equality.

My own personal struggles were less dramatic. Good people were there to help my parents in time of need. Good people were there when I started my professional career in New York City in 1957. I feel I owe the same embracing to others, and since I love art, jazz, photography, freedom — especially freedom — there was and is an obvious connection to the people who make this music come alive and push it forward.

I came to jazz through art — painting and photography, the American Abstract Expressionists, beat poets, Greenwich Village wanderings — as a young and very impressionable artist living in New York City. I was drawn to the music, as I was to my art, initially, by the spirit and joy that I felt every time I heard jazz; this multifaceted and highly original music lifted my soul and spoke to my heart, much as Mozart did, and the initial feelings have not left me. The early to mid-fifties were spent growing, maturing, serving my country in the United States Army (now that was a trip), splitting for New York City the day after I graduated from an art college in Philadelphia.

I was in the Big Apple, the Waldorf Astoria, 52nd Street, the Bowery, the Five Spot, the Half Note, the Village Vanguard, further uptown, Basin Street East, Count Basie's, Small's Paradise, and of course, the Apollo, where every jazz junkie came for a fix in those days. But we don't use language like that anymore. Now jazz musicians bring their Evian water on the bandstand — bubbles without the bubbly.

Living in New York City between 1957 and 1964 provided me with many breaths of fresh air: Pops, Duke, Sassy, Trane, Eric Dolphy, all alive and swingin', along with Nina Simone, Ornette Coleman, Charles Mingus, Stan Getz, Carmen McRae, Coleman Hawkins, Roy Eldridge, John Birks Gillespie, Red Allen. Oh my, the list was almost endless, and they were all great musicians and some of them wonderful composers. I feel badly leaving out so many other names from this list of jazz artists.

And so along with dropping in on the abstract expressionists, enjoying their slashing and dashing, their parties almost as wonderful as their paintings, it wasn't difficult being drawn to jazz; it was all around, you just needed to reach out, it was here, there, everywhere, anywhere, inside, outside, all around.

The forty years from 1955 to 1995 proved to be tumultuous in the life of the United States and in the singular and collective lives of African Americans. Blacks' struggles for freedom and equality make us a better nation; yet knowing full well how fragile and demanding freedom is, one must be vigilant and knock away the forces of totalitarianism and the ugliness of intolerance and prejudice, whenever and wherever these forces appear. They are in evidence today!

This book is about men and women committed to the making and playing of music we call jazz, addressing its development in relationship to the ever-growing freedoms being experienced and gained by people "of color." The vast majority of jazz musicians are black, and they live in a country that was and is, for the most part, indifferent to and unsympathetic to their concerns, aspirations, and dreams, not as musical artists, but as human beings.

In October 1958 I went to meet and photograph Lester Young. From that day (night) on, jazz musicians have been a part of my life. Their music is entertaining and intellectually stimulating, and their lifestyles swingin'. No Chet Baker, no Spike Lee films, thank you. The Clint Eastwood produced "Straight. No Chaser" is where it's at. Simple and honest, no frills, just the action and the jazz artist. So the music is in my heart. One day I might just hear Sassy (Sarah Vaughan) sing again when I close my eyes and listen hard, with Duke's orchestra, and then she, Ella Fitzgerald, and Carmen McRae will sing a song that lasts forever. That would be something.

Certainly this book is an autobiography, but it also reflects the times, and also I have a lot of strong opinions about things I wish to share. The people in this book were very important cultural icons, and it is my fervent wish that my words and photographs bring them into focus in every way possible.

1 Beginnings

One day after graduating from college in June of 1957. I arrived in New York City to stay. You could park on the streets back then. I had driven my brother Ed's '51 Mercury from Philadelphia up New Jersey through the Lincoln Tunnel to Manhattan's west side, where I rented a two-and-a-half bedroom, fifth-floor walk-up on 70th Street right off Central Park West for $70 a month. I was ready to capture the world.

Getting there had not been easy or fun. I was a child of the thirties, a son of refugee parents who really had no idea how to raise children. They got off the boat and settled in Philadelphia, the cradle of liberty and the home of the Quakers, but I doubt they knew much about that. My brother and I had to suffer through a lower-middle-class insulated Jewish life, where art and music were considered frivolous activities, and where fear and poverty were never far away. I can still close my eyes and picture my father at age four under a wagon in his small village in the Ukraine, as the Cossacks, brutal men mounted on horses, came rampaging into town, shaking not only the ground but the very soul of my father. How dreadfully small he must have felt.

I caught a break when I passed all the tests and was admitted into Central High School, a very prestigious public institution where only the best students from across the City of Brotherly Love were admitted.

Like a lot of kids, I didn't take my high school education very seriously. I was a football player for my first three years — a halfback — and that was how I saw myself. My most vivid memory in high school is of being on the field when our quarterback was injured. The coach sent in his replacement, an Afro-American kid, who trotted onto the field. As he got to the huddle, the coach hollered out to me, "Snitzer, you call the signals." I remember seeing the kid's face. He was upset and embarrassed, though he didn't say a word. Here we were, going to the best high school in Philadelphia, and this kid was just as smart if not smarter than I was. But it was obvious to everyone the coach didn't want him calling the signals because he was black. Looking back, I have to say I was thrilled for the opportunity, but at the same time embarrassed. I slowly became acutely aware of the racism that existed in the world. Eyes open, I began to notice it more and more. Though most whites treated Afro-Americans as if they didn't exist, I found myself drawn to the handful of black kids at our school. I liked their dignity. I felt they had a reserve about them, a kind of maturity the white kids didn't seem to have, and I also respected the black athletes because to get their chance, they had to be better. Jackie Robinson had joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, but most of the country still didn't get it: there were sensitive, talented people behind those black faces. I'm a little embarrassed to say we never socially mixed—just wasn't done, the times were so terribly different, everyone so immersed in their ethnicities. But that incident left its mark, which made me, in time, pursue history, events that shaped this country, its people, and what I discovered saddened, angered, challenged, and changed me forever.

I used to enjoy going to see the Philadelphia Stars, the local Negro League team. Though most of the people in the crowd were African American, with a sprinkling of whites, I had no hesitation about going. I went because it was baseball and because the men on the field were talented players.

At the end of my junior year, I hurt myself playing football, and I didn't play my senior year. I concentrated on my studies instead, and lo and behold, my teachers found out I was pretty smart.

From high school I wasn't sure what I wanted to do. Even though I didn't take it seriously, I knew I liked to draw, and so I went to the Philadelphia Museum School of Art. The school wasn't accredited, and my parents never supported me, but I was headstrong, and I pursued the arts anyway. While there, I noticed evocative photographs displayed on the walls, and I bought a cheap camera, and I began to learn how to take pictures and how the darkroom worked. I also began taking weekend trips to see Broadway plays and to visit the great art museums of New York. It didn't cost much, a bus ride and a night at the YMCA. Back then you could sit in the balcony and watch a great, serious Broadway show for ninety-five cents.

When I was drafted into the army early in my junior year in February 1953, I took my camera with me, making lots of photographs of paratrooper jumps and of people in the military. Unfortunately, I don't have any of those negatives.

My military life was nothing to write home about. My most vivid memory was going home to Philadelphia in my military uniform and attending a Quaker meeting. I listened to Senator Wayne Morse talk about his opposition to the Korean War, and there I was sitting provocatively in the audience in my military uniform. Only later did I realize how patient and tolerant the Quakers were of me.

My other army memory came in May 1954.The Supreme Court decided Brown v. Board of Education in favor of those who sought integration. I celebrated with a few black soldier friends, who wouldn't take me to a black bar, and I certainly couldn't take them to a white one — being stationed in the South at the time — and so we drove around, sipping drinks, wondering what the hell was going to happen now.

I never got to see the shores of Korea. I was against the war, against violence, but back then there was no draft counseling as there was during the Vietnam War. Going to Canada was out of the question. I was drafted right out of college at age twenty, and every day I hated being a soldier so much I almost drank myself to death. After I began my military career at Camp Pickett near Richmond, Virginia, I moved on to Fort Knox, and then I spent the last five months of my active service in a military hospital in Valley Forge suffering from alcoholism, hepatitis, and cirrhosis of the liver.

After twenty-seven months in the service I received an honorable discharge. I returned to the Philadelphia College of Art and got my degree. I had decided to make photography my life. Every senior had to turn in a thesis, and mine was to photograph the Philadelphia Orchestra. I had always loved music. The orchestra played just two blocks from the college. I went to the administrators of the orchestra and got permission to photograph Eugene Ormandy and his orchestra. I have early photographs of Leontyne Price singing Handel's "Messiah." I took over a hundred photographs, and a few years ago printed a series from those negatives.

I received an A plus on my thesis. I was twenty-three years old. I knew where I wanted to go, back to the museums and the Broadway shows. And so, the day after graduation I revved up the Mercury and headed for the big city.”

To order the book directly from the University of Mississippi Press please use this link.

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