Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Part 2 - Herb Snitzer's Glorious Days and Nights - A Jazz Memoir

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

"Herb Snitzer's photographs are not just pictures. They are stories, each and every one of them. Herb is one of the great storytellers and every page of Glorious Days and Nights proves it. He tells powerful, honest, human stories about this music, the artists who made it, the injustice they endured, and the beauty they created. He speaks with authenticity and special insight because the jazz world embraced him ... and it was mutual. The result is an exciting visual and literary journey through a period when the word ‘freedom’ really meant something." 

—Robin D. G. Kelley, author of Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original

2    MOP, MOP... Bebop

“I was new to the city, and I needed a job. I decided the best way to get one was to call up a famous photographer on the phone and ask him if he needed an assistant I opened the phone book and looked for the list of photographers. This was the era of the national magazines, Life, Look, Time, Colliers, and the Saturday Evening Post, and if you had talent, you could make a good living. I looked down the list, and I saw the name "Arnold Newman." He was a portrait photographer of some renown, and he had come from Philadelphia. I called him and said I was looking for a job. He asked if I had gone to school, and I told him the Philadelphia College of Art. He asked if had a portfolio to show him, and I said I did. He asked me to bring it over so he could look at it. He liked the photos I had done of the Philadelphia Orchestra, and he offered me a job as his second assistant. He said, "You can help me lug lights and keep the studio clean, and I will pay you forty dollars a week."

I jumped at it, and during the three months we worked together, I met a lot of very famous people in New York, especially those who lived on West 6yth Street, which is where the Des Artistes restaurant is. Newman worked for Life magazine, and he photographed Stuart Davis, who had a studio there; Kim Novak, who lived there; and the prominent writer/playwright Samson Raphaelson, all residents of West 67th Street.

I didn't mind carrying his lights and setting them up. I enjoyed going back after a shoot and working in the darkroom. But Arnold was difficult and demanding, and after three months we parted.

I had noticed a wonderful photograph of Marcel Marceau, the mime, on the cover of a camera magazine, and I took note that the man who took the shot was Robert Ritta. I looked him up in the phone book, and when I saw he lived in New York, I called him cold.

"I'm looking for a part-time assistant, "he said. "Come on down."

I went down to his studio on West 56th Street between 5th and 6th Avenues, and I showed him my work. We hit it off, and he offered me a job working three days a week for twenty-five dollars a day. I was making twice as much money and working two days less!

Bob was great to work for, just a wonderful man, and he had a lady friend named Kay who was also his agent. The two of them treated me very, very well. I busted my butt for him.

At the same time I began taking a series of photographs of Central Park. I was living in two photographic worlds, in the world of making a living, the commercial world, but also living in the world of art. At the time I still considered myself an artist, not a photojournalist. I saw photography as an art form, and not a lot of people did. There were no photography galleries at the time. But I felt I was an artist, and so what I was photographing I considered art.

During my two off days I took my work to advertising agencies and art directors of magazines to see if they would be interested in hiring me or buying some of my work.

The first photograph I ever sold was a shot of the celli section of the Philadelphia Orchestra, where I was shooting down from the balcony. Madison Avenue magazine bought it, and they used it to illustrate a story they were working on, and they paid me seventy-five dollars, as much as a week's salary. I thought, Wow! This is pretty good!

One of the people I went to see was Edward Steichen, the famous photographer who was the curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art. Steichen had a reputation for helping out young photographers. If he liked your work, I was told, he would buy a photograph or two and put it in the museum's collection. I figured I had nothing to lose, and I went to see him, at the advice of Grace M. Mayer, his associate.

I showed him my Philadelphia Orchestra photographs and also some of the photographs I had taken of Central Park. He looked through my portfolio, selected two photographs of kids from the Central Park series, and paid me twenty-five dollars each for them.

Not long after that, Kay picked out a photograph I had taken of an older man and a young boy sitting on the beach facing the water. (I don't have the photograph.) She sold it to an advertising agency, which used it to illustrate the benefits of an insurance company.

She handed me six 100 - dollar bills! She didn't even take a commission. I couldn't believe it. I figured if people were buying my work, I must have something going for me. I thought to myself, I gotta do this full time.

I told Bob Ritta, "I'm going to go into the world and go for it." Bob gave me his blessing. As I said, he and Kay were wonderful people.

I went out on my own, and I didn't sell another photograph for almost four months.

A friend recently asked me if I was a Beat in those days. I was too young and too naïve to even know what that meant, but I did know I loved jazz and wanted to meet and memorialize the men and women who made this wonderful music.

Here's what I knew about jazz: the twenties, thirties, and forties comprised the swing era, the big-band era, and swing was America's popular music. Swing defined American music both in the white and black worlds. You had Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey and Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Cab Calloway, and Fletcher Henderson. America was captured and captivated by swing. Many compositions lasted no more than three minutes following the pattern of the 78s of that time, ideal for dancing. Long-playing records came later and with them came longer compositions. Of course, dance competitions were the rage of the swing era as well, and couples would dance and dance for hours, many hours, until some dropped to the floor in exhaustion. But winning came with cash prizes — at a time when people were dealing with the Great Depression. In certain circles money was hard to come by.

After World War II, there was the emergence of what we now know as bebop. Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Max Roach were among the early stars of bebop. Bebop took the world of jazz in a different direction, and while rock'n'roll, blues, and rhythm and blues became more popular, jazz became a smaller and smaller part of the total music scene in America. 

Today jazz is practically invisible. But at the time I was starting out, the jazz phenomenon had not declined. Or at least no one had noticed this was happening. Jazz in 1958 was a happening scene.

In my wanderings from magazine to magazine seeking work, I visited the offices of Metronome, a jazz magazine. The magazine hadn't published for a while, but its editor, Bill Coss, hired me on a freelance basis to go the Five Spot Café to photograph Lester Young for its annual yearbook.

The Five Spot Café was in a nondescript railroad flat down in the Bowery. It was the home of avant garde jazz, featuring such musicians as Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, John Coltrane, Jimmy Giuffre, Ornette Coleman, and Cecil Taylor. When you walked in, the bar was on the right, and the stage was on the left. There were chairs and tables in the middle and smoke all around. It was dark and steamy, a typical jazz club of the era.

Lester Young had been the central and driving force of the Count Basie saxophone section for many years. He was a sad person, a man who had been continuously hurt emotionally. He was fragile. He went into the army but didn't stay long. Like many other blacks, he was a victim of racism. Life was tough for him.

Lester Young made himself readily available to me. I began to photograph him while he was back in his "dressing room," if you can call it that. It was the room where they kept all the Coca-Cola bottles and the food. I have a photograph of Lester with the big freezer doors behind him, which metaphorically turned out to be a statement about him: Lester Young locked in emotionally. Lester was very kind to me. He didn't ask me not to stand so close or not to photograph. I just know he let me do whatever I wanted to do at all hours of the morning.

Lester may or may not have had a love affair with the great blues singer Billie Holiday but for certain they were soul mates. There is a record of Billie singing and Lester playing ("A Musical Romance,"—Columbia Legacy), and the music is so beautiful it brings tears to my eyes.

Billie died in early 1958. Lester was never the same again. He couldn't live with her, and he couldn't live without her.

Tragically, that photography session was the one and only time I ever saw him. He died six months later on March 15,1959, at the age of forty-nine. People said he died of a broken heart, that he gave up on life. And he was so talented.

That night Lester was playing for a small but dedicated audience of about thirty or forty people. This was my first jazz assignment, and I went with Bob Perlongo, a staff writer for Metronome. Lester was special then and continues to be so today. To me he was more than special; to me he was one of the greatest tenor saxophonists ever. He was my initial experience in a lifelong love affair with jazz. He came out of the darkness, dressed in a long black coat, a buffer against the chilling October air, his pork-pie hat settled squarely upon his head, his saxophone resting easily in its black leather case nestled under his arm. By the window light of the café I made the first of many photographs that evening.

The back room quickly filled with other musicians, friends, hangers-on, all wanting to talk and share the moments with Lester Young.

That evening, inside the Five Spot, both backstage and on the bandstand, Lester was smooth, relaxed, and accessible. He joked with the awestruck young members of his band, but they and we all knew he was not well, his health slipping, no one quite sure how long he would live. Prez played beautifully, sometimes haltingly, never sloppy. He was in the present, teasing his fellow musicians, leaping over their musical lines, pushing them sometimes beyond their musical limits; the always respectfully attentive audience witnessed his musical thoughts and journeys and shared a deep appreciation of the man and his music.

That night's event ended around three in the morning. The experience changed my life. Artists have life-changing moments. For me, this was it. I had never heard a jazz musician up close like that. I just felt I was not in that room, but somewhere else. I could feel it in my chest — my own awe-inspiring, life-changing moment.

I talked to Lester a little, although I was in such awe I really didn't have much to say, but I made pictures that have lasted over fifty years. I took perhaps a hundred and twenty photos, and Metronome published a whole spread in their 1959 yearbook. That first negative I ever made of a jazz musician has turned out to be what writer Nat Hentoff called "the quintessential Lester Young photograph." Coming from a man who has seen thousands of "Prez" pictures, the comment is graciously received.

That experience was the beginning of a forty-year odyssey, taking me to other cities and countries, into homes, apartments, concert halls, dark clubs — clubs long closed, worlds of men and women of all colors, nationalities; some of the folks loving, compassionate people, others as nasty as you can imagine, with terrible chips on aggressive shoulders ready to tear down rather than build up, ready to believe that all white folk are bad, ready to do battle where none exists.”

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

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