Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Part 3- Herb Snitzer's Glorious Days and Nights - A Jazz Memoir

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

"Herb Snitzer's life as an artist is about belonging, about acknowledging the right to belong. Spending time in the company of his images transports us to the enveloping, ennobling world of creativity that is jazz. Reading his prose reminds us that even in a democratic society, equality is elusive. Genius can be fragile and grace hard-won. But Snitzer's remarkable photographs reveal that the road to freedom is also full of daring and beauty, marked by elegant signposts pointing toward a better world."

—Benjamin Cawthra author of Blue Notes in Black and White: Photography, Race, and the Image of jazz; and curator of Herb Snitzer: Photographs from the Last Years of Metronome, 1958-1962 and Miles: A Miles Davis Retrospective

3    My World of Jazz

“That night with Lester Young was transformative in more ways than one. His playing had spoken to my heart and made me want to know more about his music called jazz. I was new to it, and my reaction was totally unexpected. I had gone as a photographer. I didn't even know who Lester Young was or what his background had been.

When I walked into the offices of Metronome magazine looking for work, I had no idea of its history, either. The magazine had started around the turn of the century, featuring marching band music and musicians such as John Philips Sousa. Then came the jazz age, and it covered that, and its circulation was at its zenith during the big-band era, when it wrote about Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw and the Dorsey brothers. It had gone out of business in the early 1950s, until businessman Bob Asen bought it and brought it back to life. Asen himself had been a musician, a saxophone and clarinet player, part of the Dink Rendleman and his Alabamians Orchestra in the 1920s. It was not a very famous band.

Bill Coss was Metronome's editor and Bob Perlongo, who wrote the piece on Lester Young, was associate editor. That's it. Those two were the entire staff, and after they published my photographs of Lester Young, I continued my freelance career.

In the early winter of 1960 I received a phone call from Bob Asen, who asked me if I would like to come on board as photography editor and circulation director. The job paid one hundred and twenty-five dollars a week. You could make a living on that kind of money back then. I accepted.

Because I had two jobs, I ended up working about seventy hours a week. During the day I worked at raising the circulation and bringing in advertisers. At night I roamed the city going to the clubs and photographing jazz musicians. My day began at nine in the morning, and sometimes it didn't end until six the next morning.

Not that I complained. This was the Golden Age of Jazz, and I was given the opportunity to hang out with the old masters like Duke Ellington and Count Basie, and I was also there to see the young Turks coming in like Miles Davis and Ornette Coleman. One night you could listen to Nina Simone at Town Hall, and the next night you could see John Coltrane. I also got to play ping-pong with Thelonious Monk at the home of Baroness "Nica" de Koenigswarter, an heiress to the Rothschild fortune.

Metronome resumed publication in June of 1960 after a long hiatus. On the cover of the first issue was a photo I made of Coleman Hawkins. He was easily recognized by jazz aficionados, so we thought we'd put him on the cover.

Hawkins had originally played with and was a star of the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra from 1924 to 1934. He was in good company in 1932. Others in the orchestra were trombonist Dicky Wells; trumpeter Henry "Red" Allen; saxophonists Hilton Jefferson, Ben Webster, and Don Redman (arranger as well); and clarinetist Buster Bailey. He went to Europe until 1939, playing with the Jack Hylton Orchestra in England, and in 1937 appeared on a recording with saxophonist Benny Carter, guitarist Django Reinhardt, and violinist Stephane Grappelli. The war in Europe started September 1, 1939. He wisely returned home. He then went off on his own and freelanced for a long time. Hawkins had a great relationship with Roy Eldridge, the great trumpet player whom Dizzy Gillespie saw as a mentor. I was told that when Coleman Hawkins was away from the jazz world that he basically listened to classical music, especially the symphonies of Beethoven. And why not?

The photo that appeared in Metronome was made from a sharp angle, because Coleman was on stage playing, and I was down below shooting up at him.

The painters of the fifties, including Jackson Pollock and Stuart Davis, were drawn to the clubs of Greenwich Village where bebop, the new jazz, was being played, where blacks and whites came together in racial harmony or at least in racial tolerance to each other. It's not hard to see why they were drawn to bebop with its dazzling speed and seemingly random, always electrically charged sounds. The musicians were doing in their way what the painters were doing on canvas. Each tried new techniques coming out of a time when America was transforming, when technology was slowly replacing tools, where computers were being introduced, where the norms of society no longer held the culture together.

The painters listened to and absorbed what they were hearing. Stuart Davis's work related to the industrial power of America and the continuous growth and change that came after World War II into the 1950s, twenty years of unparalleled power, and if ever a music reflected this growth and power, it was jazz. The great jazz venues — the Five Spot, the Half Note, the Jazz Gallery, the Village Vanguard — all were downtown New York, the same neighborhoods where the artists hung out. How could they miss each other? The fact is, they didn't.

Thelonious Monk was a big part of that early bebop scene. He was distinct and unique and a very creative jazz pianist and composer. He had the reputation for being very strange, into his own world. He would stay in bed all day, or he wouldn't talk to anybody. In those days he was what we called "a character." But Thelonious was a highly talented character who could really play.

The first night I photographed Monk, he was playing in the Randall's Island Jazz Festival on a bill with Duke Ellington. That night he wore a Chinese coolie hat. Why? Who knows, but I have these wonderful pictures of him performing with his hat. The next time I photographed him was at the United Nations. Bill Dixon, who worked at the U.N., also was a jazz trumpet player, and he arranged to hold a series of concerts there. They were held in a long hallway where they set up chairs. We sat on the same level as the performers. They brought in a piano and they hired Thelonious Monk to come and perform. On this day in deference to the United Nations, he didn't wear one of his hats inside the building but instead dressed formally and wore sunglasses.

I was one of two photographers there. Unlike today, when it is difficult to get real close to the performers, I was able to set up right on the other side of the piano. Monk was playing and I noticed the piano keys reflecting in his sunglasses, so I started shooting, trying to get the keys positioned just right, and that's how that photo came about. After all these years it's still a wonderful picture. When you say Monk, you picture the glasses. Buell Neidlinger was on bass, Charlie Rouse on tenor saxophone, Monk on piano, and Art Taylor on drums. Ornette Coleman sat in the front row intently listening. It was a terrific afternoon.

During the day my job was to raise circulation and money for the magazine, a job I came to with no prior experience. It was all on-the-job training. The magazine had a mailing list from its previous life, and I wrote letters to former subscribers, apologizing for going out of business, letting them know we were back in business, and asking them to subscribe again. To sign up advertisers, I met with executives from hi-fi companies, saxophone manufacturers, and drum makers like Zildjian.

After a few months I could feel we were making progress. Metronome was a good jazz magazine, and subscriptions began to rise, albeit slowly.

Meanwhile, I had access to all of the jazz clubs all of the time. My life didn't have enough hours. That first year Bob Asen, the magazine owner, said to me, "I want you in the office at nine o'clock in the morning." I said, "I'm out photographing until three in the morning. I need my rest." He said, "You're part of the magazine, and I want you at your desk at nine." As a result, I burned the candle at both ends for a while, but even at age twenty-six there was a limit to my energy. I started going to bed earlier.

I went to the Five Spot to photograph Charles Mingus, who was a musical genius and a great composer. In the eyes of many he was the next best composer to Duke Ellington. Mingus was very demanding, and he could be difficult. I never engaged him. I kept my mouth shut, and I took my photographs. I can recall I was at a rehearsal when another musician, a white musician, looked at the musical score they were playing and said, "We have to get the kinks out of this piece." In Mingus's mind, the other musician was making a reference to kinky hair, and he felt it was a racist comment. He picked up his bass and walked out. I rather doubt the other musician's reference had anything to do with kinky hair, but that's how sensitive Mingus was. His legacy is secure. His widow, Sue, is still out there with a big band playing his music.

It was thrilling meeting the jazz greats for the first time. I can remember the first time I photographed Count Basie at Birdland. The Basie band played there a lot. You went down a bunch of steps into a very dark area, meeting Pee Wee Marquette on the way, he was almost as famous as the club. The bar was on the left and the seats were on the right. There was an entrance fee, but they let underage kids in who would sit at the bar and drink cokes. After Basie arrived, I walked up to him and shook his hand and told him I was there representing Metronome magazine. He was very accessible, and the guys in the band were terrific. They didn't have the ego and the histrionics of the rock ‘n roll musicians of today. I can remember one very special night when the Basie orchestra was playing, and Sarah Vaughan was in the audience just listening. She was wearing a plain dress with a shawl over her shoulders. O.C. Smith, the singer for the Basie band and now a minister in California, kept egging Sarah to come up and sing with him. She kept saying no. She didn't have a gown on, and she was very conscious of what she was wearing. 0. C. kept it up, and so she finally got up on stage and they began to sing, but in thirty-two bars, she wiped him out to the point where the band was having trouble keeping the song going because the musicians were laughing so hard. Musically she just whipped his ass. She went off on runs with her sensational voice that made him seem like a teenager. Very quickly he got her off the stage. "Thanks, Sarah, it was great having you up here." Meanwhile, O. C. had egg on his face because she had simply wiped him out. And at that point everyone was cracking up. O. C. learned a lesson. Don't mess with Sassy.

Many of my photographs of Basie were taken at Birdland, but I also was with him at recording sessions for Roulette Records. I attended some band rehearsals, where I made one of my favorite photographs of the hands of Eddie Jones around the neck of his bass. And then there was the session where I met Sammy Davis Jr., when he was recording with the Basie band, and I was able to make one of the definitive Sammy Davis photographs.

Sammy Davis was courteous, very professional, and if he hit a wrong note during the recording, he'd stop and start all over again. He was very demanding of himself. I had a great afternoon. When I went to see these performers it was almost magical. I'd float into their lives, stay for two or three hours, and I might not ever see them again.

The September 1960 issue of Metronome featured a half-page photograph of mine of a really far-out pianist by the name of Cecil Taylor. Cecil hit notes that just didn't sound right. Over the years, of course, it turned out Cecil was right and everyone else wrong. But his early music confused people because he hit notes no one ever touched before. He would do it with his elbow, and everyone would say," He's just hamming it up." But though they were the right keys, they would sound dissident and strange. It was like what happened with the classical musicians who were breaking away from the baroque era and were getting more and more into the music of Beethoven and the contemporary players of the day. The music sounded strange, like when John Coltrane first came onto the scene. Now his music is part and parcel of jazz history. The same thing happened to Cecil Taylor. He was really out there. I have to say I really didn't understand his music. I only met Cecil for an afternoon, and the picture that appeared in the magazine was shot through a window. He was sitting in a diner, and I photographed him through the window. So what you see is the reflection of buildings in the Broadway area, and street life partially hiding his face. It's a very abstract photograph. Since I felt separated from his music, I tried to get the same feeling in my portrait by shooting through that window as if to say, "The window is a barrier between me and Cecil in understanding his music." I wanted to have a barrier between the two of us.

With all due respect to Taylor, I quote from Ted White's article: 'The place of pianist/composer Cecil Taylor in today's jazz is a curious one. His records are few .. .and he has been bitterly denounced by some critics. His music is 'far out,' in that it often meets unaccustomed ears, but can be, in its own way, as exciting and fresh as Ornette Coleman's."

One of the greatest nights of jazz I can recall came in August 1961 at the Village Gate, which was owned by an impresario by the name of Art D'Lugoff. Art was in his early thirties. He had graduated from NYU, worked as a waiter in the Catskills, and drove a taxi. He went on to temporarily manage Nina Simone and Tom Lehrer. He backed a Calypso group called the Tarriers, who had a huge hit with the Banana Boat Song, "Day-oh." Art invested the money he made in the Village Gate. That night in August 1961 was the first of two successive weekends of music by the John Coltrane Quartet, the Horace Silver Quintet, and Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers with Wayne Shorter on tenor saxophone, Freddy Hubbard on trumpet, Cedar Walton on piano, Curtis Fuller on trombone, and Jymie Merrit on bass. It was an all-star happening. Coltrane added Eric Dolphy to his two-bass quartet. One rendition of "My Favorite Things" was clocked at 35:15 minutes — the length of an average LP. Horace broke it up with his composition of

"Filthy McNasty."The place was half full when I was present. It cost a buck to get in, a beer was fifty cents, and hard liquor a buck and a half — so how much was John Coltrane making? He was lucky if he even got paid. Historians talk about the Golden Age of Jazz. I think back to the Village Gate, half full with three of the greatest artists in the history of the music performing to empty seats. The people present were electrified by what they heard and saw.

My photographs appeared in a two-page spread in the November issue of Metronome.

Of all of the performers, John Coltrane made the greatest impression. He started out playing the tenor saxophone; when he switched to the soprano saxophone he made some of the most significant jazz recordings ever made. Max Roach used to say when he was listening to young players wanting to make an impression, "Man, that cat is playing a lot of notes, but he isn't making any music." John Coltrane was making music. Ira Gitler, a wonderful jazz writer of the day, called Coltrane's efforts "sheets of music [sounds?]." As already mentioned, Coltrane and his group would play for over thirty minutes on one composition. Just having the energy to do so is breathtaking. In addition to having Eric Dolphy on bass clarinet that evening, Dr. Arthur Davis and Reggie Workman were on basses, a young McCoy Tyner on piano, and Elvin Jones on drums.

At one time Coltrane had been a drug addict. For a while he was a mystic. After he got off the junk, he became a compelling musical force. And yet, when I met him, I was impressed by what a gentle person he was. When he finally beat his addiction, he wouldn't even drink in the clubs. He would have hot tea between sets. He lived in a world within himself. He was calm, but when he put that saxophone to his mouth, the music was inspiring. It moved me in a strange and compelling way. I took it all in. I didn't even question it. It was just what it was. And when I listen to those original recordings, which you can get today on CD, you have to say to yourself, "My God, this guy was a giant of an artist." Coltrane died young.

Bill Coss, Metronome's editor, was the one who came up with the idea of having a ping-pong tournament for jazz musicians. Metronome would sponsor the tournament, and I would photograph the games. We set up tables at the Jazz Gallery, a club on St. Mark's Place just around the corner from the Five Spot, and we were able to get Max Roach, Abbey Lincoln, Milt Jackson, and Thelonious Monk to enter the tournament. As I photographed them playing, I took notice that Thelonious Monk, who stood six feet two and weighed about 240 pounds, was head and shoulders better than the others. They weren't athletes, and after I finished taking my photographs, I picked up a paddle and played a little doubles, teaming with Max Roach and then with Abbey Lincoln. I thought to myself, "I'd really like to play Monk. I think I could beat him." I put the challenge to Thelonious one night after he finished playing at the Jazz Gallery. We arranged a match. Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, who loved jazz, was a benefactor of Monk. 

Before that, she had been a benefactor of saxophone legend Charlie Parker, who died in her New York City apartment. I don't know whether she still had the apartment, but on this night she had brought Monk to the club in her Rolls Royce and was waiting to take him back to her house in Weehawken, New Jersey, overlooking the New York skyline. At 2:30 in the morning I followed in my Volkswagen bug as we sped through the Holland Tunnel to her home. When we arrived at her home, I walked in and noticed

she had set up a ping-pong table in one of the many rooms. Thelonious and I grabbed paddles, and we began volleying. I thought, "I'm going to be able to take this guy." We played the first game, and Monk won 21-8. He cleaned me out. I figured, "Damn, I'm not going to let this happen again. I know what to do." I figured I'd slice more and make him move around. I figured I could out-position him. We played a second game, and this time he won 21-11. He was so fast and quick, I didn't have a chance. I said to him, "Play another one, Monk?" This time he beat me 21-6. By this time it was six in the morning. We put our paddles down, and the baroness brought us coffee and cookies. We chit-chatted for a while, and then I got back in my car and headed back to Manhattan. It was a great evening, so much fun. But it seemed unreal that such a big guy could beat me at ping-pong. It was humbling.”

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

No comments:

Post a Comment

Please leave your comments here. Thank you.