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Rethinking Jazz Cultures

Tony Whyton: What Does Jazz Do For You?

By Published: October 21, 2013
I think quite often about this and again it's about agendas. In putting the book together, I had a conversation with a few photographers and we talked about this where quite often they might say 'I go to gigs and all I do is document what I see. I'm a documentary photographer and that's it. You're getting an accurate representation of what I saw.' And I'll say, 'Well, why are you printing in black and white? We don't see the world in black and white. You are framing things.' Photography, as with music, is offering a frame, and in that sense it is a construct. You are creating an idealized view of something. Whether that is good or bad is up for discussion but I think that when we talk about jazz we have to realize that it does feed into all these other areas; the language we use to describe it, the visual imagery.

I actually think we're doing jazz a disservice, if we just think about it as a purely sonic form. My latest book, Beyond A Love Supreme: John Coltrane and the Legacy of an Album builds on a lot on the Jazz Icons... material actually, but I talk specifically about the legacy of Coltrane, A Love Supreme (Impulse!, 1965) and beyond. Part of the discussion is about how an album can mean so much more to people than just the sound they hear and how recording can play a part in changing people's view of the world. Maybe even change their view of history itself. If people say 'oh, we just need to focus on the music' then we're doing the music a disservice in terms of what value it actually has for people.

AAJ: Picking up your point about photography, it seems that much jazz photography shot in black and white wants to imitate the iconic photos of Herman Leonard? Do you think such photographers are bound by the same straightjacket as the linear jazz historians?

TW: I think that iconic jazz photography has had a profound influence on the representation of music. There's also something in black and white photography that maybe mirrors the changing cultural status of jazz too. For example, black and white photography is typically linked to more artistic pursuits, rather than the amateur photographer or the everyday photographer, so it takes photography into the art realm, doesn't it? There are other things going on; it sort of makes jazz feel timeless. Black and white can seem historical but it's also contemporary, so maybe there's something in it about standing the test of time; it also creates an other-worldly feeling.

I remember an interesting article about the artist Madonna and her use of sepia photography when adopting a child from African orphanage. The study explored how black and white and sepia imagery encourages warmth and affection, a degree of endearment, and invites us to trust the image. So, when related to jazz, we can understand that there are a whole host of different visual markers and value systems underpinning a lot of these things that makes us think about the music in certain ways. Or at least they can encourage us to think in certain ways.

AAJ: The opening night of the Rhythm Changes Conference in Manchester in April at the Cube gallery featured the exhibition of Paul Floyd Blake —a non-jazz photographer taking jazz-related photographs; what was the aim behind that exhibition?

TW: That was part of the response to the idea about rethinking jazz because we felt that the visual imagery of jazz had become so stylized. We wanted to commission a photographer with a national reputation who could look at jazz through a different lens. I had seen Floyd Blake's work before; Paul had won the National Portrait Photography Prize a few years ago, I think it was for his photo of an aspiring Paralympic athlete, and he is also renowned for his portraiture and studies of place. Paul's work concerns issues to do with identity but there's maybe also a slightly subversive aspect to it that takes a non-conventional view of things.

We thought it would be really refreshing to see what someone like this would do in a jazz setting. It was a big challenge for him to think 'how do I go against this history of the great jazz photography? How am I going to respond to that in a creative way?' There's always that feeling of the weight of tradition and we had a number of early conversations where I encouraged Paul to develop his own approach. In many ways it's similar to the ways musicians feel, who have the weight of these tremendous jazz icons on their shoulders. As musicians know, it's sometimes difficult to perform creatively against that weight of history.

This is one of the things we talked about, trying to resist the stereotypes—having no black and white. We didn't necessarily want any shots of musicians or smoky rooms. We wanted to think about the role jazz has in particular places, so rather than focus on the individual we think about settings and the idea of social ambience. What does jazz mean in particular settings? How does it feel?

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