Saturday, October 30, 2021

Part 6 - Herb Snitzer's Glorious Days and Nights - A Jazz Memoir

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

"With eyes wide open and the wisdom of the years, Herb Snitzer offers a refreshing take on an era that is too often trivialized in a smoky, romantic haze. His stories brilliantly balance humor and compassion, his photographs capture the power of the music. Together they present a clear, honest picture of the golden era of modern jazz, when indignities were rampant, compensation could be minimal, yet the music — and the lessons it shared — proved timeless and yes, glorious."

—Ashley Kahn, author of Kind of Blue: The Making of The Miles Davis Masterpiece and The House That Trane Built: The Story of Impulse Records

6    Europe and Cambridge

“With Metronome going out of business — for the last time — I decided to go to Europe for three weeks, hoping to find some calm and new experiences both in and out of the jazz world. I knew up front that I was going to visit the Summerhill School in Leiston, Suffolk, England as I had read a book by its headmaster, A. S. Neill, and was taken by his way of educating children. I also was going to see Zoot Sims, the great Woody Herman tenor saxophonist as he was playing at Ronnie Scott's club. I planned to meet up in Paris with French photographer Lucien Clerque, whom I had recently befriended in New York at the request of Grace M. Mayer, the assistant to Edward Steichen at the Museum of Modern Art. (Grace, while director of photography at the Museum of The City of New York, enabled me to have my first museum exhibition. She remained a dear friend all through her life.) Well, here I was in London, and soon I was almost killed by an automobile because I looked left instead of right. I had forgotten that automobiles drove on the left rather than right side of the road. I was pulled back by people waiting to cross the street, thankfully. Not a good way to start the trip. As the days passed I photographed the street life in both London and a few surrounding areas; amazingly many of those early London images (and Paris images as well) have held up, strong and powerful in their own right.

Meeting Zoot at Scott's place was easy enough and we made arrangements to meet again in Paris at the famous Blue Note Café.

Going to Summerhill became a life-changing event as I returned there in 1962 to do a book on the school for the Macmillan Company, which eventually led to my leaving the world of photography and co-founding an alternative school based on the principles of participatory democracy and voluntary classes.

My stay in London was especially wonderful. I spent that time living at the home of Peter and Ann Piper. Peter was the director of the London Portrait Gallery, a very important museum of the art of portraiture. He and his

family were most gracious and I recall with great fondness how open and giving they were to me. I am sure they did not agree with A. S. Neill's education principles but that did not get in the way of dinner conversations covering so many issues of importance to the English, especially the way the United States threw its weight around the world (some things never change). I was growing, changing, becoming more and more in tune with life, yet at the same time having a terribly difficult time personally. A marriage was ending and my energies were focused on my art, writing, and inquiring about people, events, and happenings throughout the world.

I then went on to Paris, to meet with Lucien and his wife. I stayed at the Hotel de Seine, along the Rue de Seine, each night costing me one American dollar, including breakfast. It was cheap then, being an American in Europe. If it cost me a dollar a night, what must it have cost for Richard Wright, Ernest Hemingway, and all the other American writers and painters, sculptors, photographers to live in Paris during the 1920s and 1930s? I imagined one could live in Europe for a year on less than five hundred U.S. dollars. And so many did. Race played a hand in why many black artists left the United States, finding it much easier, emotionally, to live among people who didn't seem to see "color" as much as good manners and talent.

I met Lucien a number of times in my week in Paris. We spent a great deal of time just walking around, making photographs, trying to stay warm as the weather got colder (November in Paris is still a delight, as my wife and I experienced when we returned there in 2005, celebrating our wedding anniversary as well as my birthday.) Lucien was very gracious.

My meeting with Zoot at the Blue Note was surreal. He was already on stage when I arrived and I immediately saw that he was drunk. Coming off stage we greeted each other and talked through his intermission. He then went on to play another set, continuing to do this through the evening, getting more and more inebriated as the night went on. I bid Zoot goodnight, telling him that I would be back the next evening before returning to America.

I arrived early. Zoot was already there, and we greeted each other with a hug, at which point Zoot said to me, "Herb, where were you last night? I thought you were going to show up." I looked at Zoot and realized that he wasn't putting me on, that in fact he was quite sober and his questions quite sincere. I simply and quietly told him that in fact I was there and we did talk through the evening.

He ordered a drink, scotch on the rocks. It was another great evening of music. I didn't see Zoot again for over twenty-three years, but was honored when his widow, Louise, called and asked if she could use one of my later (1983) photographs on the memorial flyer. Of course, without question. He was such a terrific guy and a wonderful musician.

I returned home, almost broke, certainly unemployed, but I enjoyed the freedom. I was determined to return to England and the Summerhill School, which did happen as one contact led to another and lo and behold, the Macmillan Company gave me a twenty-five-hundred-dollar advance on sales. I returned to England for a stay of three months, working on and finally publishing "Summerhill, A Loving World" in 1964.

With the demise of Metronome magazine, the golden age of jazz came to an end for me. Between the folk singers and the Beatles, the hunger for jazz became less and less in America. I returned to the life of a freelance photographer, and for the next two years I worked for the Saturday Evening Post, Time, Fortune, Holiday, and Show, where I wrote and made photographs of popular figures, including Casey Stengel, Robert Oppenheimer, Hedda Hopper, Tennessee Williams, Bette Davis, and Sonny Rollins.

In the spring of 1964, I left New York City for the Adirondacks.

For thirteen years the Lewis Wadhams School prospered. As headmaster I watched hundreds of youngsters thrive and learn and go on to college. But the school's financial woes brought my full time career in education to an end, and in July of 1976 my family and I moved to Portland, Maine, where I established a jazz concert series. It was short lived.

In 1978, my family moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where I rekindled my love of jazz and reunited with some of the musicians who had befriended me back in New York. I also started working for Polaroid Corporation, a job I held for the next four years.

Dizzy Gillespie was playing at the Boston Globe Jazz Festival, and Fred Taylor, one of the producers, and I, went out to Logan Airport in a chauffeur-driven limousine to pick him up. We were taking Dizzy around to various radio stations, because he was appearing with what was then called the Dizzy Gillespie United Nations Orchestra. I'm photographing Dizzy in the limo, and at the end of the day we end up at WGBH, the flagship of all the PBS affiliates. I said, "Oh man, I made a big mistake." Dizzy said, "What's going on?" I said, "My car is on the other side of town, and you're going to be here quite a while."

Dizzy said, "Take my limo." I said, "I can't take your limo. How are you going to get to your hotel after you're done here at WGBH?"

Dizzy put his hand on his chest as if he were hurt, and he said, "Herb, I'm Dizzy Gillespie. I'll get to my hotel."

I said, "Solid," and I gave him a big hug good-bye, and I jumped into his limo. Off we went. The driver said to me, "Wow, that was some important person."

I said, "That was some very nice person."

Nina Simone was another outstanding artist whom I met early on. I met her because Colpix Records wanted me to photograph her for an album cover. She was living in Philadelphia, so I set up a photo shoot at the Philadelphia College of Art, where I had gone to school. I took her into a studio with a black background and out of that session came a number of fine images. One was used on her first Colpix album titled "The Amazing Nina Simone." But there were other photos from that shoot that I personally prefer.

Nina and I were the same age, and we hit it off. We liked each other, and we started seeing each other socially. I would go to her apartment in Philadelphia, and she would sing, and I would sit back and listen, enthralled. When Nina moved to New York, I saw her all the time. She became a part of my family, until her career took off and she became famous and my career took me in a different direction and out of the city.

In April 1986 Nina Simone came to Boston to perform. She was a part of the Boston Globe Jazz Festival. I knew she'd be staying at the Park Plaza Hotel, and I just wanted to see her again. We had been really close friends, and I was hoping we could get back to that.

I went up to her floor, knocked on her door, and she opened it. She was wearing a bathing suit over which she wore a fur coat. I thought, Wow, maybe I'm making a mistake, when she said, "Herb, what are you doing here?"

I said, "I live in Cambridge now. I heard you were going to be at the festival tonight, and I wanted to come and say hello and see how you're doing."

She said, "Can you come back tonight and help me get ready to go to Symphony Hall?"

I was honored to do so. I asked her what time she wanted me to arrive, and she told me, and when I went home, I told Alice, the woman I was seeing at the time, about going to be with Nina, and she said, "She's my favorite jazz singer. Can I go with you?"

I didn't see why not, and we got to the hotel to be with Nina. Meanwhile, at Symphony Hall, Freddie Hubbard was playing, and Nina, who was the star act and who was supposed to go on after him, hadn't arrived. George Wein, the producer, called Nina on the phone in a panic. He said, "We'll give Freddie one more tune. You gotta get over here." I could hear her cursing him on the phone.

“Fuck you, I'll get there when I want to get there," she said. I was embarrassed. Alice was horrified.

Finally, I helped Nina get downstairs, and we climbed into the limousine to take us to Symphony Hall. The whole time she was bad-mouthing everybody.

"You fucking people don't know what you're doing. I don't need this." It was almost as if she was crazy. Life had made her so bitter and angry. She had had guys who had screwed her over, and she had managers who stole her money. It was just terrible to see that this happened to her.

When we arrived Freddie Hubbard's group had come off the stage, and with some prompting from George Wein, Nina finally left her dressing room and headed onto the stage.

Symphony Hall holds about forty-five hundred people. Sitting on the stage was her longtime guitar player Al Shackman, and when she walked out and the spotlight hit her, the entire audience got up and cheered and cheered. She bowed low to acknowledge the applause, and I said to Alice, "This is what she's all about." But it was all downhill from there. During her performance she even cursed the audience. When she came off stage she was muttering under her breath, "I'm never going back on that fucking stage. People don't appreciate what I do." George Wein said to me, which he has since denied, “I’ll never book her again."

The night ended, and we went back to the hotel. I made a good photograph of a more relaxed Nina and Freddie Hubbard together. Alice and I said our good-byes, and while we were driving back to Cambridge, Alice said to me, "If the jazz world is like what I experienced tonight, count me out.” That's how traumatized she was.

Eight months later, in early December 1986, I was in my studio when the phone rang. It was Nina. She asked, "Would you go to Switzerland with me and photograph a week of concerts I'm going to do? I can't pay you, but I can cover all your expenses." Right before Christmas a freelance photographer isn't doing very much, so I said okay.

I flew from Boston to New York and met her at the Pan Am terminal. We got on a plane to go to Bern, Switzerland, the capitol where she was performing. We stayed at a five star hotel where my bathroom was bigger than my Cambridge living room.

I had never been to Switzerland, but after two days with Nina I wanted to go home. Being with Nina was terrible. She would walk into a restaurant and see a table with a "reserved" sign on it, and she'd sit down even though it wasn't reserved for her. And she wouldn't budge. She'd then holler at the maître d'.

During the second evening I was so embarrassed by her behavior that I excused myself and went into the club in the hotel to see who was performing. Blues singer Margie Evans was on stage, and I was sure I knew her drummer behind her. I sat down to listen to Margie sing, and after the song she introduced the members of her band. She said, "On the drums, my good friend Oliver Jackson." He had been a good friend of mine during my Metronome days.

After the concert was over, Oliver walked back to where I was sitting, and I stood up right in front of him to stop him from getting by. He looked at me quizzically, and I said, "I'm Herb Snitzer," and he said, "Oh, my God," and he picked me up off the ground and gave me a bear hug.

We spent the next twenty minutes catching up. He couldn't believe I was there in Switzerland with him. He said, "You're not with the Nina Simone group, are you?" I said, "Yeah, she brought me over." He said, "Oh, I'm so sorry. She's got to be terrible."

I said, "It's no fun, O. J." l had another three days to photograph her, and I did the job, but otherwise I stayed as far away from her as I could. I just couldn't wait to get back home. A long time ago she had been a friend, but she had turned just awful.

When I came home from Switzerland I was determined never to contact her again, but when I had my one-man exhibition in Boston in 1990, my mural of Nina Simone was the biggest image of the show. Nina is central to the development and evolution of American music, and I was determined to tell her through my actions that friendship runs deep and loyalty is important.

When the same exhibit of my jazz photographs appeared in a gallery in Los Angeles, I left out my image of Nina and purposely didn't invite her, knowing she was living in Los Angeles at the time. I was just not prepared to deal with her antics that might disrupt the evening festivities.

The night before I was on a jazz radio station in L.A., and I was talking about the people in the show whom I knew, and the host asked me, "Do you have any Nina Simone stories?"

I said," I'm not getting into that. Nina Simone is a great artist, a great singer whose personal life has been filled with terrible events. She's the female James Baldwin as far as I'm concerned. I love that lady, and I'm not saying anything bad about her."

Then he asked, "What do you want people to take away after they've seen your work?"

I said, "A sense that African Americans have centrally contributed to the cultural and spiritual life of the United States." I waited for his response. He said nothing. I continued, "Jazz is more than wonderful music. It's a statement about a people's desire and thirst for freedom, and with freedom the sweetness of individuality and sense of self-worth." Again the interviewer kept quiet. I plunged on." It is my thesis that jazz musicians, and especially black jazz musicians have made an important, very important contribution to the United States. Once we look at jazz this way, we must salute Pops, Duke, Sarah, Miles, and others as major American artists, not jazz artists — which they are —  but American artists. Look, Duke Ellington is the greatest American composer of the twentieth century, but you would never know it from the white press.

"Well, Duke was the best, just as Martin Luther King was the best. Just as W. E. B. Du Bois was the best, just as Sarah Vaughan's voice was the best." I was expressing the injustice of it all.

Nina, who was living in an apartment in Los Angeles at the time, was listening to the radio show.

A couple days later she came to my exhibition. The gallery owner knew who she was immediately. She didn't say anything. She came in and quietly went through the show. When the gallery owner introduced himself, she told him, "I heard about this exhibition on the radio."

I never saw Nina again. It was so sad. She was such a major and distinct talent. You couldn't mistake her voice for anyone else's. The songs she sang were all Nina Simone. I miss her still. She died April 21,2003.

The march of time had had an opposite effect on Stan Getz, who had indulged too much in drugs and booze during his early years of traveling. He had been the most lyrical of tenor saxophone players following in the tradition of Lester Young. A star at age nineteen, he quickly became dependent on booze and drugs, and he would fight this battle for the rest of his life. Ironically, it was his cigarette habit that finally killed him.

Stan was mercurial, at times charming and open, and other times very mean spirited, although he was never as bad as Chet Baker. Stan's personality was always determined by what his body was either needing or fighting off.

I had photographed him during the concert at Macy's Department Store in 1961, and then not long after that I saw him play at Lewisohn Stadium. I didn't see Stan again for almost thirty years, when he came to play at the New England Conservatory of Music in February 1989.

In anticipation of this meeting I wrote to Stan, reintroduced myself, and told him I would be following him around all day on assignment from the jazz department of the Conservatory. I told him I would be respectful of his time and space.

Still youthful at age sixty, Stan was suffering from lung cancer, but there was none of the darkness that had hung over him. We chatted for a long time, and he introduced me to his fiancée. I then went about my business of making pictures while he learned the score of the extended piece of music he was playing that evening. He was all business. He never lashed out at anyone, and he was patient with the student orchestra. To my eyes he was a changed man.

I sent Stan a photograph of him and his fiancée, their heads together. It was a common pose, but I thought he'd enjoy having it. A few weeks later my phone rang, and it was Stan telling me how wonderful the picture was and how thoughtful of me to send it. I couldn't believe my ears, because most jazz musicians took such gestures for granted. For Stan to call was almost unnerving. When I read in his Philadelphia Inquirer obituary that Stan was quoted as saying," I finally became what I should have been all along: a gentleman," I had to nod my head. That was precisely what he had become.

He returned to Cambridge about six months later and performed in a hotel ballroom to an overflow audience. He didn't look well at all, but he was, backstage, gracious, calm, with a light in his eyes not often seen. He was sick, everyone knew he was fighting cancer, and who knew how long he would live? The concert was typical (if Stan was ever typical) Getz, soaring lines, melodies beautifully played. The other musicians — Kenny Barron on piano, Rufus Reid on bass, and Louis Hayes on drums — were a single heart beating with Stan. I stayed through the evening, making some more images of Stan both backstage and on stage. I bid Stan goodnight and good-bye, wondering whether we would ever meet again. We never did.”

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