A blog by the staff of the Thomas Ford Memorial Library
In 1960 photographer William Claxton and musicologist Joachim Berendt made an amazing, and thankfully fully documented, road trip. They travelled across the U.S. searching out jazz musicians. The photography and accompanying text that resulted are a beautiful record of the music both as it was in 1960, and how it had changed in the decades before.
Of course, the real treat here are the hundreds of Claxton’s photographs. They are always wonderfully candid. Whether it’s a shot of Dinah Washington laughing on stage or Philly Joe Jones curled up on the floor next to his drum kit, the sense of place and the very real presence of these musicians is amazing. To me, the settings are the thing that sets the best of the photos apart from album covers and promotional stills. You get to see Mahalia Jackson singing in her living room, Roosevelt Sykes playing in the garage at a house party, and Donald Byrd with his trumpet on the subway.
Berendt’s text is a perfect accompaniment to the photographs, knowledgeable and anecdotal, and full of passion for the music’s future and grief for it’s past. Here’s a representative snippet from the section on Chicago:
At one point we ate some excellent barbecue on the South Side, ribs roasted over an open flame. When the man who was roasting them noticed we had something to do with jazz he introduced himself: Mike McKendrick, banjo player with Louis Armstrong in the 1920s and one of the last survivors of a large family, all of whom recorded under the same name “Mike McKendrick” at the time and caused a great deal of confusion… The man roasting ribs on South Indiana Avenue is Ruben Mike or “Big Mike” McKendrick.
Reading along and looking at the photographs you feel a lot closer to the music. Like you’ve joined the jazz family somehow. No matter how familiar you are with jazz there’s something to be learned in both the photos and the text. It’s a thrill and a must read for a lifelong fan like me, but it will also appeal to anyone who wants to start dabbling in the genre.
Review by Matthew