Ron Hudson: Jazz on the Focal Plane
Summing up the career of a man as extraordinary as jazz photographer Ron Hudson is an intimidating proposition. He has spent the past thirty-plus years photographing some of jazz's brightest dignitaries, capturing moments and committing them to history. He's also heard some great music along the way.
Hudson and I recently met at his home on a sunny, February afternoon. Hudson and his energetic canine companion, Ella Fitz, greeted me at the door. It was my second time to meet Hudson. I had made his acquaintance in December when I purchased an image of Pat Metheny from him as a Christmas present for my husband. Hudson is gracious, personable, down-to-earth and quite easy to talk to. He escorted me upstairs to the living area of his home. We entered a comfortable space full of light, color and art, some of which were paintings done by Hudson himself.
One of the first things that caught my eye was a wall with about a dozen photographs of some of jazz's brightest figures: Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Joe Williams, Milt Jackson and Shelly Manne to name a few. All of the images were signed, some with personal notes to Hudson and some with a simple signature, or as in the case of Miles Davis, a signature and a dotted quarter note.
Our afternoon of stories began at this wall. He pointed out an image of French pianist, Michel Petrucciani, who suffered from "Glass Bone Disease which dwarfed his frame but not his talent. Petrucciani played extensively with saxophonist, Charles Lloyd. Hudson once took an image of Lloyd holding Petrucciani at the end of a performance. There was also a photograph of Shelly Manne, taken at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1982. Manne is sitting behind his drum kit, flashing a particularly sweet smile. The accompanying signature, which is personalized to Hudson, is lively and large. Manne died of a sudden heart attack two days after he signed the image.
Hudson and I continued our discussion in his kitchen. We talked and sipped French- pressed coffee. Hudson was born in the Bay Area and lived, for a time, with his family in Santa Maria. After graduating from high school, Hudson went into the Air Force, where he served as an illustrator. During this time, his family moved to Monterey.
In 1959, while on leave, Hudson was visiting his family while the Monterey Jazz Festival was going on. It was only the second year of the festival. Hudson's mother was a singer and lover of the arts, and Hudson decided to take her to the festival one evening. The lineup on that particular night consisted of Sarah Vaughan and her trio, Oscar Peterson and his trio and Count Basie and his Big Band.
If the dream billing wasn't enough, Lambert, Hendricks and Ross served as Masters of Ceremonies for the evening. Hudson recalls that they sang their introductions to all the performers and that they sat backstage and scribbled lyrics for their acapella introductions. This was the first of what would be many more evenings at the Monterey Jazz Festival for Hudson.
After Hudson completed his Air Force duties, he moved to Monterey and worked as a graphic illustrator. He eventually moved to Hawaii where he served as an art director for an advertising agency. During this time, he met Robert Knight, the renowned rock and roll photographer. Knight was shooting images of rocks stars during the hey days of the late 60's and early '70s. Mick Jagger, Carlos Santana, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin are among his subjects.
Knight became a mentor to Hudson and taught him about technical aspects of the art such as pushing film and shooting available light. This would be invaluable to Hudson in the years ahead. An assignment with Sun Bums, a local beach newspaper was Hudson's first opportunity to take photographs at the Monterey Jazz Festival. With press credential in hand, Hudson set out to Monterey. That was in 1973, and he has been every year since.
The majority of Hudson's collection has been shot at the Monterey Festival. Monterey is "kind of like home to Hudson and is where he has met many dear friends as well as some of the world's greatest jazz musicians. There he has captured images of such notables as Count Basie, Tito Puente, Ray Brown, Stan Getz, Carmen McRae, Joshua Redmond, Woody Herman, Ray Charles and Oscar Peterson. These are just a few. The list is very long and very impressive. Many of these images hang on the walls of his home. I was struck by them and in some cases, mesmerized. (A very lovely shot of Christian McBride comes to mind.)
Hudson has not only seen plenty of action onstage at Monterey but backstage as well. In his words, you could get into some "serious hang backstage at Monterey. There's a bar, "The Hunt Club behind the backstage area and there are closed circuit televisions for catching whatever is happening onstage. Booze flows, and the scene jumps with musicians, journalists, photographers and other jazz hipsters.
Hudson has seen his share, backstage at Monterey, and it's an easy place to get distracted. Hudson has observed Dizzy Gillespie warming up and has watched Louie Bellson assemble his own drums. He has witnessed some interesting pre-performance rituals and has also, at times, seen some perhaps less than flattering behavior. Hudson, however, eschews such photo opportunities. The dignity of the artists is important to Hudson. "There's a line , he says. There are even some images that he chooses not to release for public consumption. These images involve aging musicians who were ill at the time of the photograph and did not look their best. Clearly Hudson's respect for his subjects is felt very deeply.
Also backstage at Monterey are about a half a dozen "holes opening out to the stage. From these small holes, performers waiting backstage can watch the action and, as in Hudson's case, photographers can take pictures. Hudson has taken several profile shots of musicians peering through these holes. They're great shots, and he wishes that he'd taken more over the years. He has, however, obtained some wonderful onstage images from the holes.
When a photographer works a festival for as many years as Hudson has, change is inevitable. When Hudson began shooting the festival in the '70s, the press corps was relatively small, and the photographers had the luxury of settling in for the perfect shot. Now days, with the large throng of press, CNN cameras and the like, photographers must observe the three song rule. You can stay in front of the stage for three songs. If you don't catch the shot you were hoping for, you're out of luck. (Hudson shares with me that if he gets one good shot on a role of 36, he's satisfied.)
There have been other changes as well. Hudson has seen two or three festival directors come and go and has also observed that the large group of friends that assembled over the years has diminished. Some move on to other things. Some stop coming. And sadly, a few pass away. Hudson shared with me the story of his dear friend, Richard, with whom he stayed with every year during the festival. Over the years, Richard lived in several wonderful houses in Carmel Valley. Richard was a delightful host, and Richard and Hudson shared a large circle of friends. There were many fun and happy times. Richard was a popular bartender at the well-known establishment, The Covey at Quail Lodge.
One evening in the mid-90's, Richard was killed by a drunk driver while driving home from work. This was a heartbreaking loss for Hudson. He and Richard were like brothers. Returning to Monterey after Richard's death was very difficult for Hudson. He even considered passing on the festival. Ultimately, he continued going and still attends every year. However, things are not the same.
Alongside Hudson's passion for jazz is his commitment to jazz education. In his words, "Who's going to perpetuate this music? It's the kids. Hudson gives a percentage of the proceeds of the sale of his images to various jazz education organizations such as Centrum's Jazz Port Townsend. When Hudson is in the darkroom, he prints multiple images and then he asks his subjects to sign the prints. He may present an artist with two or three prints for their signature and explains that the signed images will be used in fundraising efforts for various educational groups.
Alongside his request for a signature, Hudson also presents the artist with a print to keep. This method seems to work for everyone. Each year, three of Hudson's images are raffled off at the Centrum Jazz Port Townsend, and he often donates images to school auctions like Roosevelt and Garfield High School and also to charity fundraisers.
Hudson's commitment to jazz education does not stop there. He sometimes travels with high school jazz bands as a mentor, photographer and chaperone. In years past, he has been to the Montreux and North Sea Jazz Festivals with Scott Brown and the Roosevelt High School jazz band. He also recently attended the International Association of Jazz Educators conference in New York City. While there, Hudson followed up on former students who honed their chops in Seattle music programs and are now out in the world playing jazz.
One former Roosevelt student, Jay Lepley, recently shared with Hudson that he had a "defining moment with him. While Lepley was starting out on drums, Hudson took him to Jazz Alley to see Elvin Jones. Hudson recounts Lepley's words; When I saw what Elvin was doing with those drums and the possibilities that drums have, it was a defining moment for me. I knew then that I wanted to play drums. Hudson is visibly pleased as he tells the story. The whole point of taking Lepley to Jazz Alley that evening was precisely for him to have a defining moment. Lepley is still playing drums today. Mission accomplished.
Hudson has a special fondness for drummers. He is one. While living in Monterey, he and a vibe-playing neighbor had a quartet-piano, bass, drums and vibes, which performed around the area, including in local military establishments and officer's clubs. The quartet was wild about vibe master, Cal Tjader, and emulated his style. The goal was to keep the music danceable.
When asked about his drumming today, Hudson says, "I'm not a very good drummer by any means because I don't practice enough. You know, it's one of those things like anything else; you don't practice, you know. I have more fun talking to drummers. I do know how to talk drums. I just don't know how to play them. Hudson counts among his friends, Joe LaBarbera, who occasionally gives Hudson a free drum lesson.
Hudson's list of accomplishments is long and remarkable. His work has been featured in four books; Monterey Jazz Festival, Forty Legendary Years, A Paradise Called Pebble Beach, A Life in the Golden Age of Jazz, a biography of Buddy DeFranco and Take Five, The Public and Private Lives of Paul Desmond. Hudson has done photography for album and CD covers, most recently for Dave Peck's Good Road. He's illustrated numerous album covers and also designed the poster for the 30th Monterey Jazz Festival. He has shown at numerous festivals and galleries across the United States, and his work is regularly displayed at Dimitriou's Jazz Alley in Seattle. Hudson will is a featured photographer at All About Jazz, and plans are in the works for shows at a couple more festivals this year. The "to-do list is endless.
Hudson has taken perhaps over twenty thousand shots. Of those, he estimates that he's captured about a thousand images. There were many I was curious about. Being a singer myself, I had to ask about his photograph of Ella Fitzgerald. He took Fitzgerald's photo at the Waikiki Shell in 1980. Fitzgerald was either "coming from or going to Japan and had breezed into Honolulu for the show, which Hudson describes as "a little loosey goosey . The band Fitzgerald was performing with was "somewhat neophonic and there had been no rehearsal. It was a bit of an off night. This was Hudson's one and only time to shoot Fitzgerald.
Another photograph I asked about was an ethereal looking image of Count Basie sitting at the piano. This one was taken through one of the aforementioned "holes from backstage at Monterey. Basie is at the piano, head down, with a wonderful light around his head. Hudson said that when he originally developed the proof sheet, he did not initially seize on that particular image. His aesthetic was for a more portrait style of shot. While reviewing the proof years later, however, his thinking about the image changed.
There are a few shots that have eluded him, one being of Karrin Allyson, of whom he has had difficulty capturing an image to his liking. There are also a few Hudson has not captured at all. In his words, "I've made some mistakes. Hudson and his friend and writer, Rick Carroll, were backstage at Monterey drinking brandy while Eubie Blake was onstage. Hudson knew he needed to get out to the stage and start shooting, but he was having a good time with Carroll and decided to finish his brandy first. This decision proved to be a bad one. "I finished my brandy. Ube finished his set and I never got a shot of him. Now he's gone.
There are many artists he still has yet to capture. They are on his "hit list, as he calls it. The day after our meeting, he had plans to attend a performance of Seattle vibraphonist, Susan Pascal. "Hopefully, if the light's right, I'm gonna get a shot. I would really like a shot of Susan. I think she's an outstanding player.
I asked Hudson about the state of jazz today and which up and coming artists he has his eye on. He seems to have quite an affinity for Benny Green, whom he has photographed many times, including when Benny was a 15 year-old playing at Monterey with the California High School All-Star Jazz Band in 1978. "It was a Sunday , Hudson recalls. Hudson recently took a photograph of Green and his first piano teacher, a gentleman named Bill Bell. Hudson is also enthusiastic about a young pianist, Eldar Djangirov, whom he was introduced to by Gerald Wilson at Monterey two years ago. The Japanese pianist, Hiromi, and her trio are also Hudson's radar.
Hudson's own future is looking bright and busy. He is opening a show at City Hall in Seattle on April 1st. It will coincide with National Jazz Month, which is sponsored by the Smithsonian. The focus of the show is Seattle Jazz Artists and will include local luminaries Dave Peck, Diane Schurr, Thomas Marriott, Ernestine Anderson, Anne Drummond, Chuck Deardorf and more. The show is sponsored by John Dimitrou and the nonprofit Pacific Jazz Institute at Jazz Alley.
Hudson, with the help of his friend, Rick Carroll, is also writing a book about his work. It will feature many of the images from his collection and will include antidotes about the shots. He hopes to have it out in time for the 50th anniversary of the Monterey Jazz Festival.
Ron Hudson has given us a glimpse into jazz history, offering us a view that is both intimate and powerful. "There's something about looking at some of these people through a lenses. You begin... they become icons when you start looking through the lenses. They get so big...their faces...you're touching their faces almost. He shows no sign of quitting anytime soon but he is mindful that like many of the artists he has photographed, one day he too will be gone.
His hope is for his work to live on after his death and has recently spoken with the chair of the archive division at the Smithsonian about a home for his collection someday. Housing a collection such as Hudson's is a complicated undertaking with many details to be considered. For now, Hudson is musing over his options.
Hudson and I talked for almost three hours. It was an enchanting afternoon, and I felt honored for the opportunity to get to know such an exceptional and delightful man. I did not want to leave. On a final note, I asked Hudson if he was satisfied. "As far as this music goes, I've had an awful lot of fun doing this. You know, I've heard some wonderful music and I've met some great people and I don't think I would do it any differently.
View Ron Hudson's photographs at the Photo Gallery.