The personal side of jazz - through an artist-photographer's eye
Dizzy Gillespie tenderly embraces Charlie Parker's son, whom he has met for the first time; Billie Holiday leans against a tree in Central Park, in a pensive mood; saxophonist Charlie Rouse gives a frowning Miles Davis an affectionate bear hug; pianist Mary Lou Williams sits in a chair, head resting on her arms, the stress of a long road tour etched on her face.
These and many others are the intimate views of jazz musicians captured by photographer/artist Burt Goldblatt in his new book ''Burt Goldblatt's Jazz Gallery One'' (Newbold Publishing Inc., New York). Here the photographer has shown the personal rather than the professional side of the jazz world - musicians caught between sets rather than on stage.
Goldblatt, as photographer and artist, has devoted much of his life to the pursuit of what makes jazz musicians tick - what the music is all about, and what the people who play it are like.
The result of that pursuit is reflected in the unusual sensitivity and candor of his work. In a recent interview this amiable, down-to-earth man chatted about his career:
''I always loved jazz, and to me, the way kids used to be about movie stars, that's the way I was toward jazz musicians. My goal in life, more than anything else, was to get to know musicians as people, and not just as entertainers.''
Goldblatt has spent a lot of time doing just that - getting to know the musicians. As a youth in Boston he used to go backstage at Symphony Hall when famous jazz musicians were performing there, clutching sketches of them that he had drawn.
''To go to Symphony Hall and to be able to go backstage into that inner sanctum - oh, wow, you were really living! That was about 1942. I used to knock on the door and say 'Could I have Duke sign this,' or 'Could you have Mr. Armstrong please autograph this?' In fact, I have a photograph of Coleman Hawkins signing one of these caricatures. They were usually horrible, but I remember Big Sid Catlett wrote on one of them - 'To a fine artist, keep up the good work.' ''
His interest in jazz was what led Goldblatt to design record jacket covers in the 1950s. But long before that, when he was still a boy, Goldblatt had a passion for drawing, as he says, ''on anything and everything I could get my hands on. I've been drawing ever since I was a kid. We were dirt poor. My father was a Russian immigrant. My drawing paper at that time was big cardboard boxes from furniture. I became very friendly with a Chinese laundryman who gave me the cardboards he used to put into the shirts. I would draw on any of these things - paper, cardboard, wooden boxes, crates from fruits and vegetables - anything to get something down.''
After high school, Goldblatt joined the Army and found an outlet for his talent - drawing cartoons on the envelopes of letters his fellow soldiers were sending home.
''It used to dismay the postal authorities all around the country,'' he remembers. ''It was a way of passing the time, and it got me out of a few details, also!''
His contact with jazz during the war consisted of a sneak trip to the black barracks - he was stationed in Alabama and the post was segregated - where he heard tenor saxophone giant Lester Young playing in a band there.
''I wasn't supposed to be there, but I wanted to hear the music.''
Goldblatt was battalion bugler during the war, but he declares, ''I never had any desire to play other instruments - I preferred to admire musicians from afar.''
And drawing and photography seemed to be the way to do that. After the war, he went to the Massachusetts College of Art, and after graduating he landed a job working in a printing plant ''doing everything from stripping to platemaking , to retouching, to spotting, all the nitty-gritty that I should have learned in college.''
Not long after, he spotted an ad in a Bridgeport, Conn., newspaper for a record cover designer for Columbia Records. So he hopped a bus to Bridgeport, showed them a portfolio of samples he had designed, and was given a cover to do.
A stint with a jazz record company in New York around 1953 gave him the opportunity to do covers of people like Fats Waller, Billie Holiday, Sidney Bechet, and Louis Armstrong. Nobody bothered him, no one told him what to do, and he was able develop his own style any way he wanted.
''I got into record album covers at a good time. No one was doing covers - there were no designers at the time specifically for that.'' So Goldblatt found himself in a position of great power in his small world.
How did Goldblatt get the idea to do album covers in the first place?
''I used to go into record stores when LP records were in their infancy. What bothered me most was the fact that they were so cluttered. The designers felt they had to put every song title on the front of the album and that they had to get very fancy with the title of the album, and that they had to be very symbolic. If it was a Chopin Prelude, it had to be the lid of a piano casting a shadow on some dank swamp somewhere - very stylized. This was not the way I wanted to do it.''
Goldblatt feels, and has always felt, that direct contact with the musicians themselves is the best way to get a good photograph, a good drawing, a good idea for an album cover.
''The key was to go to the recording session itself and see the thing being put together. It was a lot easier then, because the musicians didn't have to have earphones on their heads the way they do today. The music was live, and the musicians were much more relaxed than they seem to be today.''
Those were the days when many small record companies were just starting out, and, in Goldblatt's words, ''They wanted to shake up the people. I wanted to shake up the people too, so I started to do some graphic things that had not been done before - woodcuts, steel engravings, and I would juxtapose things. I was riding high - I knew how to prepare a piece of artwork and get the effects I wanted the cheapest possible way because I had worked in a printing plant. I was using one or two colors, and being limited that way, you had to force yourself to be as creative as possible.
''I used to think of crazy things, I mean crazy. I became very friendly with Dr. Stanley Schwartz, a dentist who had an x-ray machine in his office, and we used to experiment. We would x-ray all kinds of things, and as a consequence I started to use x-rays in my work. I x-rayed an alto saxophone and used it on a Charlie Mariano cover. It worked out beautifully. It gave an effect - you not only see an alto, but you see all the valves.''
As far as photography is concerned, Goldblatt admits that he is entirely self-taught. ''Nobody ever taught me photography. I picked it up by myself. I have always taken pictures - in high school, in the Army. Someone in my family always had a camera - old box cameras, very rudimentary. I made an awful lot of mistakes, which is basically the only way to learn. I ruined a lot of film, a lot of paper, but I learned from those mistakes. Basically, if my art training taught me anything, it taught me how to see.''
In between record jackets, Goldblatt busied himself working for Harper's magazine and doing plenty of free-lance work. He stopped doing the jackets around 1960.
''When the rock thing came in, I quit.''
Would he consider doing record jackets again?
''I don't know what the designers are doing today, but I can't picture myself out in that maze. There are too many people telling you what to do every step of the way - that's why I stopped. I couldn't even get any pleasure out of the recording, because Dionne Warwick, for instance, would come in, snap a pair of earphones on, and sing over a string orchestra that was recorded eight months ago. She'd be recording a two-bar section two-hundred times to get it absolutely perfect. This is recording? You have no rapport. You don't see any musicians, you see her and that's it.''
So what is on the horizon for Goldblatt?
''I'm interested in everything. My wife and I - we have that curiosity. We go to book sales, and she'll be rummaging through the books and records, and I'll hear, 'Oh, Burt, here's one of yours!' She wants me to put together a collection of my album covers in a book. The thing is, I hate them all! I hate everything I do ten minutes after I do it. My wife is the opposite.''
Meanwhile, he contents himself working on his current project, which has nothing to do at all with jazz or musicians - a book about Eleonora Sears, a tennis and squash champion and marathon walker in the early part of the century.