16 May 2014

On Lee Friedlander ~ Whatever Happened to Milt Hinton?

Count Basie Band (1956) © Lee Friedlander

I lifted this image of Lee Friedlander's off the MoMA web page because it reminded me of a review, from 1986, that historian Eric Hobsbawm wrote for the NYRB. The review discussed Good Morning Blues: The Autobiography of Count Basie (Albert Murray) and The World of Count Basie (Stanley Dance) and was entitled "Playing for Ourselves." The title was excised from a remark Basie's long time drummer Jo Jones made in an interview in the Dance volume.  Looking back on the travails black jazz musicians encountered in depression era Kansas City Jones says "We were really behind the iron curtain. There was no chance for us. So there was nothing to do but play for ourselves."

This week at the NYRB is a review occasioned in part by this exhibition at the Yale Art Gallery some of which is devoted to Lee Freidlander's images of jazz musicians in New Orleans. (The other images in the exhibition are by Milt Hinton - an accomplished bass player and photographer who, being African-American, goes unmentioned in the review.) The review also is occasioned in part by the appearance of this accompanying collection of Friedlander's photographs:


The new collection is an updated and expanded version of this 1992 work:


What happened to Milt Hinton in all this remains a mystery. It is the same sort of effacement of African American musicians that, as I've noted here before, occurs (among other places) each spring at the Rochester International Jazz Festival. More on that another time.

Nothing I've said thus far should detract from Friedlander's work. Here, followed by just one of the portraits it mentions, is a comment from the recent NYRB review:
"Friedlander’s most indelible images are his portraits of musicians. Friedlander arrived in New Orleans at a high point in the jazz revivalist movement, when fans of jazz as it was originally played in New Orleans in the first two decades of the twentieth century (before the perceived corruptions of swing and bebop) descended on the city with tape recorders and notepads and cameras, hoping to catch some of the old magic and document it for posterity.  [. . .]

Friedlander’s portraits do not feel celebratory, however. He found authenticity all right,  . . .  in the toll taken on his subjects by decades of privation and indifference. In his portraits the musicians—most of whom didn’t have the chops to follow Joe Oliver and Louis Armstrong north to Chicago forty years earlier—stare wistfully into the distance, or at the wall, as if indulging in some bittersweet private nostalgia. Many sit beside old family photographs, including pictures of themselves as young men. Some are photographed with their instrument, which they hold impotently, or rest in their laps. Their apartments are spare and poorly lit. There is dignity in these portraits, to be certain, and pride, but there is also despair."
 Tom Albert (1958) © Lee Friedlander

It is refreshing to focus in on Friedlander's accomplishment as a portraitist just because it upsets somewhat conventional views of his work. But there are other images as well, and these bring me back to the Hobsbawm review I mentioned at the start.

George Lewis and Jim Robinson, Paddock Lounge (1958) © Lee Friedlander

"This sense of melancholy also shadows Friedlander’s photographs of performances. When George Lewis’s band plays a Bourbon Street tourist trap called the Paddock Lounge, the ceiling is so low that he almost has to duck, and nobody else in the frame—a patron, two bartenders—seems aware that they are in the presence of jazz royalty, an impression that is amplified by the insulting presence of the lawn jockey posing directly in front of Lewis. There are no audience members, for that matter, visible in most of the performance pictures, giving the impression that the musicians are playing for themselves."

Just so. And the portraits of elderly musicians capture part - surely, only part - of what trails behind their pursuit of so demanding and ultimately so isolating a profession.

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