Photostory4: Big Jay McNeely


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From time to time, I spot a jazz photo that moves me so much I have to know what happened the moment the camera's shutter came down. As a fan of 1950s jazz photography, I have long admired the high-contrast black-and-white work of Bob Willoughby.

If you're unfamiliar with Bob [pictured], his stunning photos of jazz musicians between 1948 and 1954 are all classics. You'll find them at his site, Willoughbyphotos.com. Bob has published 18 books and has 9 projects pending, including Jazz, Body & Soul. You'll find a PDF of his vision for the book's design here, under “Unpublished Books."

When I reached out to Bob in France, he sent along the following e-mail in relation to the photo at the top of this post and those that follow from the same event:

“This was really something! It was 1951, and I had been listening in my darkroom to the late-night disk jockey, Hunter Hancock. He was advertising a jazz concert at the Olympic Auditorium (the local Los Angeles fight arena) starting at midnight! The idea of starting a concert that late was really so intriguing that I had to see what it was all about.

“As I walked in, the concert had already begun, and the hall was rocking on its foundations! I could see the audience on their feet screaming. You could taste the energy in that air. To this day I have never seen or heard anything to match it. It was my introduction to the amazing Big Jay McNeely.

Main-4 “Big Jay stood in the middle of what normally would be the fight ring, playing his heart out, and the crowd was exploding around him. He created some sort of resonance with the audience. In some weird way, he seemed to be playing them!

“It was so mind boggling that I found myself scrambling for my cameras as I ran toward the fireworks, afraid I was going to miss it all. I needn't have worried. Big Jay was a marathon player.

“I was so caught up in the excitement, that I just climbed right up on the stage without thinking. Big Jay was strutting up and down playing chord after chord on his sax. Honking his way through 45 minutes of pulsating, explosive rhythm. He kneels, he sits, he lies flat on his back. He plays into the faces of orgasmic girls. He is away on some space flight. He perspires until his clothes are soaking, he takes off his wet jacket never missing a beat.

“The near hysterical crowd was screaming.

“Big Jay literally was a Pied Piper. I was told that at another concert in San Diego, he swept the entire audience out of the theater and took them for a tour around the block. Much to the dismay of the local police, who weren't too sure what might happen at this Olympic gig either. You could see them in the crowd, probably looking for drugs. But with Big Jay in orbit on stage, the crowd was already on a high.

“Most of the musicians' names are lost in time, but some of the singing that night was done by Smilin' Smokey Lynn. It was Big Jay, the man himself, who is best remembered for those wonderfully mad and crazy Los Angeles midnight concerts."


Photos by Bob Willoughby. Bob Willoughby/all rights reserved. Photos used here with the artist's permission.

JazzWax tracks: If you want to hear what Bob heard in 1951, you'll find Big Jay McNeely at the Olympic Theater in Los Angeles on Classics: Big Jay McNeely 1951-52 here.

JazzWax note: If you want to see the other photos in this series, type “PhotoStory" into the search engine in the upper right-hand corner of this page.

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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