Tuesday, November 2, 2021

Part 8 - Herb Snitzer's Glorious Days and Nights - A Jazz Memoir

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

“This book includes Snitzer's very best jazz photographs. He reveals the essences of the artists, their struggles, joys, and pains. A number of Snitzer's jazz images have become iconic, including Louis Armstrong with the Star of David, Lester Young at the Five Spot Cafe in New York City, John Coltrane reflected in a mirror,Thelonious Monk with piano keys reflected in his sunglasses, and Miles Davis at Newport. With eighty-five black-and-white images of jazz giants, Glorious Days and Nights provides a long-awaited testimony to the friendships and artistry that Snitzer developed over his remarkable career.”

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

8    Switzerland

“Through the efforts of drummer Oliver Jackson, for three straight years I was invited to attend and photograph the Bern International Jazz Festival. The concerts were produced by Hans Zurbrugg, an amateur trumpet player (and banker) who told me he would invite Dizzy Gillespie back to Switzerland any chance he could get given how very special Dizzy was as a player and human being. The public persona — always happy-go-lucky, smiling, joking — is sometimes different from the private side and John Birks (Dizzy) is a good example of this. For all his funny antics, Dizzy was a very serious fellow, committed to his music and his religion (he was a Bahai) and to bringing great music before his adoring public.

Dizzy was the closest of friends to Charlie Parker, the mercurial alto-saxophonist of the forties and fifties who died at the age of thirty-five, yet looked as if he were sixty. Dizzy, who never engaged in drugs, tried his best to get Parker off drugs — to no avail.

I'm jumping ahead of myself here. 

As I explained earlier, Oliver Jackson was someone I knew back in the late fifties, early sixties as a wonderful drummer and human being. We hung out together then. It took twenty-five years for us to catch up to each other, which we did when I went to Switzerland with Nina Simone. Oliver convinced Hans Zurbrugg that I was the best jazz photographer in America (not true) and that I should document his festival in 1987. I was hired to cover the 1987 jazz festival and returned the next two years as well.

The festival takes place every spring, the weather warming, the grass turning green with the faraway mountains still covered with snow. The Swiss had an honest, no-nonsense attitude, cleanliness, punctuality, and a total absence of humor. A Swiss comic would be a contradiction in terms, but they sure love their bebop and blues, as the festival is sold out for five straight evening concerts that last well past midnight. It was more or less a "straight ahead" festival, with many of the performers the very backbone of the jazz world. There were others whom I did not know but they soon became some of my favorites. Being there in Bern also brought me into contact with many men and women whom I knew from the old Metronome days: blues singer Joe Williams, trombonist Slide Hampton, Newport Jazz Festival producer George Wein, Sarah Vaughan, trumpeter Clark Terry, pianist Horace Silver.

One early evening before the concert, I went out for a spaghetti dinner with Joe Williams and a number of other folks, and we had a wonderful time. Joe was holding court, putting people on, the usual jazz dinner, with everyone relaxed and in good spirits.

I had briefly met Joe Williams when I was working for Metronome. He had replaced Jimmy Rushing as the singer in the Count Basie Orchestra in the mid-fifties. He then left Basie and formed his own trio. Joe sang the blues like no one else. I have to admit he was my favorite male jazz singer.

That night in Bern, Joe was on a bill with another great singer, Carmen McRae. Always independent, Carmen had also come on the scene in the fifties. I made photographs of her in Switzerland and later at the Newport Jazz Festival. She told me one of my photos was the best she ever saw of herself.

At the end of that evening's concert, Joe and Carmen were walking down a long hall backstage, ready to split for their respective hotels. Carmen I had known from afar, and Joe was someone closer, and when they were together Joe greeted me as a friend, and I was able to make use of his ease and openness. The photo I made of the two of them was memorable.

Later I would see Joe at festivals, where we would chat, talking about life and loves, and we'd move on. For a jazz musician the road is their home most of the time. It's like what trumpeter Ted Curson said about one of his tours: "Man, you play the gig, get on the bus, move to the next town, wake up with a different ceiling in your face, wash, eat, dress, play the gig, and move on again. After six weeks of this, you get a little tired." A little tired? I'd be exhausted after two days. For a jazz musician, stamina was almost as important as talent.

One characteristic of jazz performers is their physical durability. The music can become very quick, the notes rolling off the tongues, and it takes a certain level of endurance to not only play but to stay in tune. To see this happen with young musicians is expected; to see it happen with middle age and older musicians is truly remarkable. So many of the men and women I met while covering the Bern Jazz Festival are still out there, still making music: singer Dee Dee Bridgewater, trumpeter Jon Faddis, bluesman Buddy Guy (a story in its own right). 

Upon my return to America in 1989, I put together a wonderful exhibition that opened at the Verve Gallery in Los Angeles in 1990. Buddy's image was in the show, and by chance one of the producers of "Damn Right I Got The Blues," the new Buddy Guy record, worked it out with the gallery owner, Bill Goldberg, for me to fly to Chicago and make the image that eventually appeared on the record cover. Never was I so cold in my entire life, going to Chicago in December 1990.  I spent a weekend at Buddy's blues club listening to wonderful music.

I was set to leave Chicago the next day but I also wanted to see the Picasso sculpture in front of the stock exchange, so I left the hotel early and began to walk to where the sculpture was located. It turned out to be a terrible mistake as I had no hat and my jacket wasn't that warm and the weather was nasty. Halfway to the Picasso piece I turned around and hurried back to the hotel as quickly as I could, getting colder and colder by the minute. Not one to ever take a drink in the middle of a morning, I hurried to the bar. Thankfully, it was actually open, ready for business. I asked for something that would warm me up as quickly as possible. Mission accomplished, I then headed out to the airport, never so glad to leave Chicago. Sadly, I have never returned to Chicago, but, from the many friends who not only vacationed there but also lived there, I know that Chicago is a "happenin' town." Someday.

Anyway, returning to the Bern Jazz Festival of 1987, it was a who's who of great talent and funny stories: The Blind Boys of Alabama, saxophonist Al Cohn (a real gentleman and one of the funniest persons I have ever known), saxophonist Scott Hamilton, and trumpeter Nat Adderley, the younger brother of Cannonball Adderley. Nat and I eventually became "neighbors" when I moved to Florida in 1992, as he lived in Lakeland, Florida, not far from my home in St. Petersburg.

The star of the 1987 Bern Jazz Festival was Sarah Vaughan. Knowing she was to be there, I brought along a small print of a photograph I made many years before of a young Sarah Vaughan singing with O. C. Smith of the Count Basie Band, an image I made at the old Birdland. Sarah did not recognize O. C. when she saw the photograph, and I was not about to tell her the story of how she "killed" O. C. in thirty-two bars, a story I have told elsewhere.

Being in Switzerland for the second time was a trip all by itself. The Swiss are certainly fastidious, neat, clean, punctual, and extremely honest. I thought I could leave my camera bag next to a lamppost, walk around the block, and return to find rny bag still there. I recall an incident in New York City when in fact I did leave my suitcase, by accident, next to a lamppost and, discovering the absence, immediately returned to the corner, to find my suitcase gone — all within the space of no more than two minutes.

The Swiss people that I met - all involved with the jazz world — were open, engaging, and very knowledgeable and they treated me with great respect as an artist. I had very few occasions in New York where I was treated as an artist because of what I did for a living. I felt very special.

Also, being in Switzerland enabled me to reconnect with Allan Porter, the former editor of the magazine Camera, a well-respected magazine publishing some of the world's finest photographers. Allan and I went to the same

Philadelphia high school and art college. He spent a few years in New York and had been for the past forty years a resident of Switzerland. It was a wonderful meeting and I continued to see him when I returned to Bern in 1988 and 1989. We have remained in contact through emails and telephone conversations. He continues to photograph and write about photography.

I returned home after a week's worth of great music, anticipating my returning in 1988, wondering which musical artists Hans would seek out for 1988.

I did return in 1988 (and 1989) and I brought along a tape recorder, enabling me to record some of the music played by the Count Basie Band under the direction of Frank Foster, a great tenor saxophonist, heading the band since Basie’s death. Clark Terry introduced me to B. B. King, with these words, "Herb, you will never meet a man who is more of a gentleman than B. B." He was so right. What a generous and thoughtful man he is, still out there, still making audiences cheer. He is so very special to the blues and jazz communities. And of course his performance was "totally out of sight." He brought the stoic Swiss to their collective feet, continuing to cheer until he appeared on stage to take another bow.

One of the other wonderful occasions was meeting and photographing the renowned stage and film actor Burgess Meredith, a jazz fan who stayed the entire week digging the music and socializing with musicians every night, backstage. He was so unassuming and allowed me to make a few images along the way. One of the performers, totally without fanfare, also brought the house down: Maxine Weldon's time on stage was exciting to watch. She was just terrific. Maxine was an unknown (to me) singer

from Los Angeles who continued to reinforce my feelings that there are so many talented people in this world who go through life making music, making art, who simply never receive the attention they deserve. Maxine is one of them. I loved speaking with her; she was not only a quality person but also a really talented singer.

I have always wondered what happened to her over all these years, twenty-one years to be exact. The 1988 Bern Jazz Festival ended with performances by Lionel Hampton, Joe Williams/Carmen McRae, and the great pianist Oscar Peterson. Once again I returned home with a bundle of money, some valuable tapes, and a desire to sleep for a week to make up for the too many nights of parties. Jazz musicians certainly know how to have fun!

Before leaving for home Hans and I had a conversation about my having an exhibition of work made at the 1987 and 1988 festivals; a one-person show situated at two venues, one of them being located at the upscale hotel at which the more well known musicians were staying. The other was at the performing arts center; both exhibits got high visibility out of which came a number of sales — very gratifying to say the least!

But 1989 was the last year I was able to return to Switzerland as the festival's main underwriter (a Swiss bank) pulled out and there went my opportunity to be part of any more Bern Jazz Festivals. It was a grand three-year ride, 1989 was the best of the three years, filled with great music from pianists Michel Camillo and Hank Jones; the great drummer Art Blakey and his Jazz Messengers; the steady jazz bassist Milt Hinton (a wonderful photographer, too); bluesman Albert King; trumpet players Freddie Hubbard and Tom Harrell; the always energetic singer Dee Dee Bridgewater; clarinetist Buddy DeFranco (still alive and cookin'); the composer and saxophonist Benny Golson. Freddie and Benny years ago were part of the early sixties band of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers — so the festival was a small sort of reunion for them both.

Freddie is no longer alive, while Benny is still blowing, still composing, for which we can all be thankful. The Detroit-based Moss Family Singers brought the festival to a close, and with it rny time in Switzerland. But thousands of negatives and prints are within my archives and many of the images will last long into the future, testifying to a time of great music, three weeks in three years, among creative people wishing to do no harm but rather to bring into the world all that is positive and life affirming. I was proud to be a part of those times.

After the last concert of the 1989 festival, trumpeter Clark Terry and I were sitting backstage. We were tired, drained from a week's worth of concerts, long hours, hard work, and too many parties. Clark looked at me, and I said, "Hey, Clark, what's up?"

He said, "You know, Herb, I've been thinking, you've been at this as long as we have." I thought, Oh no, Clark. You're much older than I am.

I was touched. His music and my images relate to a particular time and place, where blacks and whites — finally —  came together, however haltingly.

The next morning many of the musicians and I took a bus to the Zurich airport. They were off to other places, other gigs, festivals, or small clubs throughout Europe. The ride was filled with laughter, warmth, comradeship, good vibes. Albert King and his band were aboard, as were Milt and Mona Hinton, Dave Berger and his wife, Holly Maxson. Ruby Braff, the great grumpy cornet player, was also on board, as were the Moss Family Singers.

The sun was warm, and it wasn't long before most of the musicians were sound asleep. I always admired how musicians can fall asleep wherever they are, sitting or leaning.

We arrived at the airport, hugged, said good-bye, and since I was the only one flying to Boston, I found myself alone, thinking about my life, my friends, and the wonderful music I had just heard — a nice way to make a living.”

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

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