A Camera's Eye View: Festival International de Jazz de Montreal 2009

Bill King By

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Festival International de Jazz de Montreal
Montreal, Quebec, Canada
July 1-12, 2009

There is something truly empowering situated behind the lens of a camera waiting with expectation for the moment when the soul, mind and body of an artist strike bare wires and something electric unexpectedly happens. Privately, ownership of that moment belongs to the artist—publicly, documentation of that juncture is in possession of the person behind the lens. Where it goes after that is a matter of good will or good business.

Jazz photography for all of its iconic moments and heroic bandstand activities is still a freelance medium with few dollars earned in support of the habit. Most players burn out after a couple years. The late jazz photographer Paul Hoeffler used to gripe about all of the charity calls he fielded from day to day. I used to sit in his work space and clutch those glorious black and whites of Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Duke Ellington, Dizzy or Oscar and lose myself in the artistic dreamscape. Hoeffler was a master printer who labored over every inch of information in a negative until the appropriate balance and density between black, grey and white was achieved. Those toxic darkroom chemicals would cost him his life in the end. If Paul could have remained cancer free long enough to experience a fourteen megapixel marvel, he surely would have embraced advanced technology with the same enthusiasm jazz icon Herman Leonard expressed holding the new Nikon D700.

Photography at jazz festivals is my specialty and passion. I love the energy, the camaraderie between fellow lens jockeys, the challenge, the music, the musicians and the opportunity to paint with the eye. Conditions for the most part will defeat you—lighting is often miserable. The most shutter time that photographers ever get is three songs, or worse, just thirty seconds if the artist's management insists on restrictions. I've worked under all conditions—with conditions, without—even the "don't shoot this side of my face" restriction. At this point nothing fazes.

The Festival International de Jazz de Montreal is perhaps the most gracious forum in which to photograph. Perhaps artistic director Andre Menard is an arbiter of fine jazz photography evidenced by his inviting New Orleans photo giant Herman Leonard to photograph at will. Menard also announced the creation of a gallery using floor space currently operating as the designated press area. Leonard's work will eventually decorate the bright, well-lit walls. With that in mind, I thought I'd share a few impressions from this season's event. Work like this is done on the fly. It is fast, it is deliberate and it is exhausting.

Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with the Chano Dominguez Quartet: Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier de la Place des Arts, June 30, 7:30 pm

The first thing I try to locate is where the main person of interest will be situated. I count the number of microphone stands, the lay-out of amplifiers and study the clutter. I then ask myself, "Do I have a clear shot?" I check backgrounds for appealing graphics.

With Marsalis, I had to wait until the band took their seats. When I saw Marsalis take the first chair position in the trumpet section, I immediately headed toward the opposite side of the room to get a clear view of his position.

The music started. It was luxurious with big sweeping themes—like Flamenco music Ellington style—using four trumpets, clever counterpart and a mix of Spanish and African-American rhythms. Through the lens, it is all action. A tenor solo, a piano movement—then the bassist shifted at just the right moment allowing a clear shot at a musician coping with a monstrous score. Suddenly, the brass kicked in and Marsalis lifted the bell of the horn above the section. He did this for nearly twenty seconds—enough time to reset the aperture and ISO. I waited until he froze holding a long tone and clicked. I knew the timing was dead on.

I continued to shoot the players—especially dancing. I used a large frame of the entire orchestra and banked a decent set of images.

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