Tom’s Music Salon: Jazz – Image vs Reality

Written by
Billie Holiday by Herman Leonard - from the Fahey/Klein Gallery
Billie Holiday by Herman Leonard - from the Fahey/Klein Gallery

Last Thursday I attended a big photo opening at the Fahey/Klein Gallery for the reigning triumvirate of jazz photographers:  Herman Leonard (still thriving at 86), the late Bill Claxton, and the late William Gottlieb.   All three are known for their iconic photographs of Chet Baker, Tony Bennett, Miles Davis, Dexter Gordon, and Billie Holiday.  All three lead (Herman still does) amazing lives, and were able to portray both the heat and the coolness of modern jazz in their images.  Herman Leonard shot Lady Day cooking a steak for her boxer dog.  Claxton caught Chet Baker looking pensively down while under the protective gaze of his first wife.  Gottlieb’s images were used for a new line of U.S. Postal Service stamps.

The Fahey/Klein gallery was packed to the gills, making me wonder if fire codes were being totally ignored.    Everybody was into the coolness of the images,  the utter individuality of the artists they portrayed — though some visitors may not have known which artist was which.

I left the studio to venture up to Catalina’s to see the Kenny Werner Quartet—Kenny on piano, the amazing tenor player Chris Potter, a new bassist with a German name a mile long, and the super smooth Peter Erskine on drums.  It was opening night of a three night gig;  there were only about 20 people in the audience.  The club holds about 300.  It was said testimony that LA is not a jazz town anymore.

There once were many many jazz clubs here:  on Central Ave there were a dozen, Ornette Coleman cut his avant-garde teeth at The Haig on Wilshire and Ardmore in what is now Koreatown.   Then there was the Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach, Shelly’s Manne Hole on Cahuenga, Hop Singh’s in Marina Del Rey, Donte’s, Carmelo’s and other clubs in the San Fernando Valley.  What stricter alcohol limit for driving didn’t accomplish (most clubs make their money off the bar, not cover charges), the demise of jazz on LA radio and in the LA Times and other local magazines did.

Jazz is always portrayed as individualistic and cool; James Dean is cool, Chet Baker, and, of course, Miles is always cool.  But people who flock to photo openings don’t necessarily buy jazz records or go to clubs.  They just like the cool image, but aren’t really engaged at all.  It reminds me of all the people who bought the Buena Vista Social Club cd, saying they were really big on Cuban music.  When I asked those very types what other Cuban music they listened to, there was just silence.

Not that jazz radio is very good;  a lot of what I hear on jazz stations is tepid and passé.  No edge at all.  Perhaps Kenny Werner et al is a victim of this as well.  And of course there’s the economy, stupid.    Which all goes to say that most shows will never sell out and you’ll always get in.

Jazz is for me still what Whitney Balliet of the New Yorker once called “the sound of surprise.”  It’s a brilliant, individualistic, and intellectual music.  It isn’t always as easy to digest as pop music with verbal hooks. You have to do some work and listen to enjoy it.   But for me jazz music provides endless satisfaction.

–Tom Schnabel