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It goes without saying that the primary appeal of the classic Blue Note jazz albums (c. 1953-1966) is the music—-the vivid trumpeting of the doomed Clifford Brown, the exuberant strains of Jimmy Smith’s Hammond B3 organ, the intensity of the young saxophonist John Coltrane. But the 75th anniversary of the record label offers an opportunity to look at some of the less obvious elements that made Blue Note the complete package.
An exhibit at the Goethe-Institut justly spotlights the photographs of Francis Wolff, who helped found Blue Note and who made numerous images of jazzmen that graced label’s album covers. Wolff’s black-and-white images skillfully capture the duality of that era’s jazz—-cool and classy on the surface, roiling and passionate underneath.
Wolff documents the touchstones of hipsterdom: Max Roach’s shades; the smoke that curls around Curtis Fuller, George Benson, and Herbie Nichols; and the ridiculously long ash dangling from Miles Davis’s cigarette. But he also communicates the artists’ fiery artistry, either directly (as with Brown’s bulging cheeks before exhaling) or elliptically (as with the anarchic scratches that mar the surfaces of Paul Chambers’ bass and Thelonious Monk’s piano).
I am perhaps biased here, since several Blue Note albums served as my entrée into jazz, some three decades after the albums’ release—-particularly my very first album, Dexter Gordon’s “Go,” the photograph from which is included in the exhibit (below), capturing the saxophonist’s sheer joy of creating improvisational music.
But it’s hard not to miss some melancholic undercurrents in Wolff’s images. A number of the musicians are shown thoroughly exhausted (or strung out—-it’s hard to tell), including saxophonist-flutist Eric Dolphy, who died within months of his photograph at 36, and Herbie Hancock, who, fortunately, is still with us.
Meanwhile, it’s plain to see that all the musicians in the images are African-American, while the one white face photographed (middle above) is Alfred Lion, the label’s co-owner. In the shadow of the Donald Sterling scandal, the racial subtext of Wolff’s photographs, more than five decades later, remains as vivid as ever.
Through July 3 at the Goethe-Institut Washington, 812 Seventh Street, NW, Washington, DC. Mon-Thu 9-5, Fri 9-3.