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Photostory14: Jonah Jones

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Trumpeter Jonah Jones began recording in 1936 and worked steadily in Cab Calloway's band between 1941 and 1950. In the 1950s, Jones recorded mostly for Capitol, churning out themed albums with crisp jazz renditions of standards. I love this photo of Jones by Hank O'Neal because it captured a certain melancholy in Jones' eyes while the plastic on the chair abstractly symbolizes Jones' lengthy pop recording career. Hank picks up the Jonah Jones story:

“When I took the photo above of trumpeter Jonah Jones in 1987, we had already known each other for many years. We first worked together when Jonah recorded for my label, Chiaroscuro, in 1972. Back then, Jonah hadn't made a record in a few years and was all but forgotten. Jonah, of course, had made a ton of records for Capitol and made lots of money. He switched to Decca in 1965, and recorded for Motown in 1968. Then he didn't make any more albums until he recorded for me four years later. [Photo of Hank O'Neal by Ian Clifford]

“When I was conducting interviews for my Ghosts of Harlem book in the late 1980s, Jonah was living in New York's Washington Square Village, which is just off LaGuardia Place. I wandered over with my camera and tape recorder, and we talked for two long sessions, each running a couple of hours. Jonah loved to talk, and his interview is the longest one in my book.

“When the interview finished and it was time to take photos, I set up my camera. All of the images of the 43 jazz musicians I interviewed were taken in their homes or in a park across the street or in a location where they were most comfortable. None of the images were set up. The only thing I took into consideration during a photo session was getting a subject into natural light.

“As I prepared to photograph Jonah, our banter was about my big, stupid wooden camera [laughs]. I used a Deardorff 5x7 mounted on a tripod. All of the musicians I photographed for the series were captivated by it. They had remembered the camera from when they were young. They also were curious about the complicated steps I had to go through just to make an image. I surely looked ludicrous going under the black cloth each time and emerging with my hair all messed up.

“My goal was to capture Jonah's calm, peaceful look. It was his decision to hold his horn. What emerged in the photo, however, was a certain sadness and loneliness. In 1987, Jonah was well into his 70s. No one had recorded him consistently, and no one much cared about him. His long-time manager, Sam Berk, was gone, as was his wife. For a musician of his era, Jonah lived extremely well because Sam had carefully managed his money.

“The chair in which Jonah was sitting was the one he sat in during our conversation. As for the plastic on the chair, the same was true in Dizzy's house and other musicians' homes. In all cases, their wives had put the plastic on there to preserve and protect the upholstery.

“My conversation with Jonah ran late, so it was dark when we turned to taking the photos. Which meant there was no longer any available natural light. So I had to use a fill light that I bounced off the ceiling to illuminate him. You'll notice that there are no shadows on Jonah's face. I wasn't intending to make a moody picture. I simply wanted to show what Jonah was like, without an artsy feel.

“The Deardorff required negative holders that you loaded up with 4x5-inch negative sheets. I customarily took enough to capture 12 images of a subject. For Jonah, I probably was about four feet away and above looking down. I used Tri-X 400 ASA film with a half-second exposure. For the color image above, I used a Roloflex and Kodak's Vericolor II film.

“Jonah was a wonderful man. One of the sweetest people you'd ever meet."
--Hank O'Neal

All photos of Jonah Jones by Hank O'Neal. Hank O'Neal--all rights reserved. Photos used with the artist's permission.

JazzWax pages: The black-and-white photo at the top of this post appears in (Vanderbilt University Press), a 488-page collection of Hank's interviews and photographs of 43 jazz legends. Interview subjects include Jonah Jones, Dizzy Gillespie, Milt Hinton, Erskine Hawkins, Benny Carter, Sy Oliver, Buck Clayton and many others.

JazzWax tracks:
Chiaroscuro Records' catalog can be found here. Jonah Jones' Back on the Street for the label can be found here.

More PhotoStories: I started this feature to showcase iconic jazz images and the stories of the photographers who took them. You'll find the other PhotoStory posts in this series under the “PhotoStory" heading in the right-hand column of this blog (JazzWax).

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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