Although she grew up hearing her father's beloved big band records, our first Super Fan of 2022 took a roundabout path to jazz. This artistic soul was more drawn to dance, photography, and humanitarian work than to music. It was only after a series of life changing events that she rediscovered jazz, realizing that improvised music and the people who make it spoke to her as powerfully as her other passions. And that led to some pretty interesting collaborationsnot to mention NYC International Film Festival awards!
Tell us a bit about yourself.
I was born and grew up in the Bronx. I went to City College and studied clinical audiology. I did research in otoneurology for several years before marrying and moving to Chicago. From Chicago we moved to Rancho Santa Fe, in San Diego
county. I picked up a camera when my son started playing basketball around the age of five. He proved to be very talented, and played on competitive teams. I became the team photographer and eventually my role expanded to become the school sports photographer. My son is probably the most documented ball player in San Diego!
As a family we traveled the world. I've been to 73 countries. When Max went off to college, I went to Peru for a photography workshop with a professional photojournalist, and my love for storytelling photography grew. I volunteered for different organizations when I returned and became well known in San Diego for using my images to make change and bring awareness of issues to the public. My photography is my way of giving voice to marginalized communities and to witness the human experience. My work celebrates each individual's strength and beauty, as well as their vulnerability and spirit, going beyond how one presents oneself to the world.
What's your earliest memory of music?
From an early age I remember my father loudly playing big band records: Benny Goodman
, Glenn Miller
, Dizzy Gillespie
, Duke Ellington
, Lionel Hampton
, Gene Krupa
. When that wasn't blasting, Italian opera was. My parents were wonderful dancers, and I have fond memories of dancing around the house, or at events with my dad. I loved music with rhythm. I was definitely a disco and Salsa queen, and danced many nights away in clubs around New York City.
How long have you been going out to hear live music?
What is it about music that makes it so special for you?
The power of music has no limits. Music heals, it unites, it is medicine for the soul. Music is one of the universal cultural aspects of societies all around the world. We cannot underestimate its importance in our lives and communities.
Was there one album or experience that was your doorway to jazz?
It all started when I moved to downtown San Diego from North County. When I returned from Peru, I decided to volunteer as a photographer for organizations I felt strongly about. Through my volunteer work as a photographer at The San Diego Foster Angels, a foster care organization, I met San Diego Sheriff William Gore, who asked me if I would help change the perception of the female convicts at Las Colinas Detention and Rehabilitation Center. Of course, I said yes. When I walked into that prison, my life changed. I was still grieving the death of my husband, and was so taken by the women I met, who had endured such hardships but were turning their lives around, that I continued working with incarcerated women for several years. I loved using my images to advocate for restorative justice, which opened up lots of local opportunities for me to work with agencies that would use my photos for advocacy and educational purposes. I was invited to a community meeting one evening at San Diego State University, and first heard the Voices of Our City Choir, an ensemble composed mainly of local homeless people. Today, the choir has swelled to more than 225 members and has raised enough money to help many of them get off the street and into housing. I started photographing the choir, documenting their work. Through hanging out with the choir, meeting its founder and director, local jazz singer Steph Johnson
, and befriending the jazz musicians who volunteered their time at choir practice, I started going to concerts, and I fell in love with jazz. The music resonated with me, emotionally and intellectually. I started to recognize similarities between what these musicians and I were doing: the connection and importance of improvising, of creating with the heart and the mind in the moment. The instrument and the musician become one, and this is how I feel when I am photographing.
Tell us about your work photographing local jazz musicians.
I'm currently working on a project to highlight local San Diego jazz musicians who were thinking outside the box to help our communities emerge on the other side of this crisis stronger, healthier, more connected and empathetic than ever. Many people are not aware of the vibrant jazz community here. I missed this so much when the pandemic forced us all to stay apart and isolated. I wondered how these talented musicians were doing through this difficult time. Performances were canceled, audiences were gone. This was their life force. How were they spending their time? I was determined to capture this so I decided to ask them.
How did this project come about?
A friend had sent me some photos of a restored vintage house. I just randomly said how I would love to photograph inside this house, and how fabulous it would be to picture the jazz musicians playing in the emptiness. I did a shoot with three musicians there, and from there the project was born: a photographic journey telling the story of how these and other musicians fared through the pandemic. I found a group of people demonstrating resiliency, creativity, and passionexactly what I'd hoped to find. I felt that they needed to be recognized and applauded for all they did to keep our spirits up.
What was particularly inspiring about this project for you?
Jazz can be seen as a reflection of the cultural diversity and individualism of this country. The San Diego jazz community were so welcoming to me. It made me want to honor them for all they are doing to help us through this challenging, never-ending pandemic. It's been an extraordinarily difficult time for all us. Musicians understand the importance of music as a tool to help deal with the situation we are currently in. This project is my way of recognizing these brilliantly talented souls for giving so much of themselves to others. [Ed. note: A link to the photo essay can be found at the end of this column.
What makes a great jazz club?
I prefer small venues and being up close to musicians when they play jazz. Intimate, dark. The music evokes emotions that feel as if they are just for you! Watching a musician lose themselves in their music is intoxicating from a creative standpoint. That's what I look for. Unrestrained emotion.
Which club(s) are you most regularly to be found at?
These days I can be found at Panama 66
or at Westgate Hotel
If you were a professional musician, which instrument would you play?
I love dance and percussion so maybe the vibraphone; to me the vibraphone is very rhythmic, like the conga. The first time I heard vibraphone was when my father would play Lionel Hampton records. Ian Harland
and Matt Dibiase
are incredible vibraphone players here in San Diego. If you could go back in time and hear one of the jazz legends perform live, who would it be?
I would love to hear Gato Barbieri
. His saxophone talks with expression!
And Billie Holiday
. Her songs are filled with so much pain. I was introduced to her in my early 20's and after listening to her for years I started learning more about who she was, and about her life's struggles. Being widowed at a young age I am extremely empathic to those who have suffered trauma. And I find that people stereotype others, not really taking the time to get to know who they really are. My images are about changing perceptions. My work is about emotion. Billie's songs are about emotions.
Speaking of changing perceptions, tell us about your recent documentary, Sounds of the Sidewalk (A Journey of Goodbye).
The film is a story about love, loss, homelessness, and the power of music, featuring Steven Ried, a homeless man I befriended through the choir. At his invitation, I documented the last twelve weeks of his life after he was diagnosed with liver cancer, to challenge the perceptions about homelessness and capture the beauty and grace that exists in even the most difficult times. He spent those last weeks with friends and his surrogate family, the Voices of our City Choir, with whom he co-wrote the song, "Listen to the Sounds of the Sidewalk," which debuted on America's Got Talent. [Ed note: Sounds of the Sidewalk
won the Best Documentary and Humanitarian awards at the 2021 New York City International Film Festival; see link at the end of this column.]
What do you think keeps jazz alive and thriving?
The creative mind. The passion of the musicians. The need to tell the world how they are feeling at this moment in time.
Finish this sentence: Life without music would be...
...a life without emotion. There is music to express pretty much every emotion we have. It's the guardian of the heart and the messenger of our feelings. It's magical.
Michele's All About Jazz photo essay Sounds of the Sidewalk (A Journey of Goodbye) website