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Fifty years into the Twentieth Century jazz became the true voice of black and white urban America. There is something about jazz that embodies the sum and substance of the American city: It is seductive, direct, and purifying (for proof check out or reacquaint yourself with Charles Mingus's "Boogie Stop Shuffle" or Duke Ellington's "Take the 'A' Train"). Not surprisingly after World War II jazz experienced a boom among intellectuals and critics. It wasn't big band anymore; it was bebop. At the beginning of the Fifties, as more albums were sold, the public was curious to see the talent behind the sound. It was during the cool postbop years that jazz photography became a style in itself. The records contained the music, but the album-cover art brought forth images of intensity, glamour, and the pain behind jazz.
Jazz photography has a tradition, with a number of styles. One thinks of artists such as Roy DeCarava, the master of immediacy, truly a performer's photographer; or the sensual appeal of William Claxton, one of the first photographers to show the sensuality of the instruments of jazz. Herman Leonard explored the glamour as well as the pain in some of his well-known black-and-white photos of celebrities such as Fitzgerald, Ellington, Holiday, and Sinatra. We have the documentary creativeness of Lee Friedlander, whose early Sixties photos of Ornette Coleman and Mingus are models of direct portraiture. Unfortunately much of today's jazz photography is simply journalistic snap-shooting or rehashed old formulas. What to do that hasn't already been done?
Frank Stewart's In the House of Swing, a collection of some 22 black and white photographs, offers a fresh approach. Stewart, with credentials from the Art Institute of Chicago and Cooper Union in New York, is a two-time recipient of the National Endowment of the Arts' Photography Fellowship and a teacher at the State University of New York at Purchase. Some of the photos are part of a book-project collaboration with Wynton Marsalis titled Sweet Swing Blues on the Road. Denise Andrews has curated the exhibition at A+ Resources Fine Art Gallery, her second-story gallery on Biscayne Boulevard.
Jazz photography is versatile. The vibe of a recording session is much different from the concert stage, or that quintessential jazz venue, the nightclub. Stewart shoots a bit of each, but focuses more on Marsalis's septet. Informed by previous jazz photography, Stewart elaborates and re-creates some historic references in his own style. He must have been acquainted with the work of DeCarava, the famous black photographer who also taught at Cooper Union. DeCarava was a master of poetic contemplation and sensual tonalities in black and white, and above all he was a photographer of people. The Sweet Flypaper of Life, a book from 1955, was an important joint effort between DeCarava and the poet Langston Hughes, and this work seems to resonate in Stewart's collaboration with Marsalis. Yet in contrast to DeCarava's expressionism, Stewart's style is more anecdotal and celebratory. He doesn't go for the glamour. In fact he seems to avoid it. Some shots are elegant, even stoic in their simplicity.In Wynton's Mutes light and shade are captured to create a mood of contemplative repose, with a cluster of trumpet mutes on a table reminiscent of the twentieth-century Italian artist Giorgio Morandi's still-life paintings.
Photography's greatest challenge is to deliver the moment, and Stewart's art achieves this. He shows us the performer, but also the person behind the act. And what performers: Ella, Dizzy, and a rare backstage shot of Miles. In Johnny Hartman the singer, eyes closed, depicts a unique moment of concentration between phrases. Then there's the photograph of Cassandra Wilson, looking away, with long locks of braided hair. In Ron Carter Stewart chooses hand over face: The grip of the bass player holds a chordal position in the foreground while Carter's face recedes, out of focus. We get the message. That's what really matters for the music.
Stewart's best balance is achieved with the Marsalis series. To get the job done, the photographer hung with Marsalis and his septet for a year. Marsalis let Stewart in; the photographer became a member of the band by default and the result is obvious: a visceral portrait of a jazz band on the road.
Wynton on Stage is a vivid photo of Marsalis in the limelight, clapping and throwing a step as he encourages his two bass-clarinet players while the audience members in the front rows follow his lead. My favorite photograph in the show is Wynton, Blues in Abstract Reality. With this complex photo Stewart flexes his conceptual muscle. The shot presents two groups of musicians getting ready for a gig, dressed in black against a white background, separated by a mirror. On the right side two musicians practice against a wall full of photos of jazz legends; on the other side we see Marsalis fastening his tie. There is in fact a third group that appears in the picture's foreground and that actually is behind us (the observer) along with the photographer. Cut in half by the mirror's frame.
A+'s owner Denise Andrews curated shows for the Bakehouse before opening A+ last January. Prior to Stewart's show she put on "The Glory of Color," featuring works from local artists, including Charo, Florencio Gelabert, and Gary Moore; and "Portraits: Body and Soul," with works by Elizabeth Catlett, Beauford Delaney, and Edouard Duval-Carrié. Andrews says her goal is to bring together different artists from the African diaspora. The effort is as diverse and inclusive as it could be within her theme.