Guest post : Milt Hinton, Geoff Dyer

There are lots of really good books of jazz photos. (Books by Wiliam Claxton, Jimmy Katz, Bob Parent, Herman Leonard, Francis Wolff, etc., are just a few that spring immediately to my mind.) But far and away my favourite of the few I own is Milt Hinton’s “Bass Line “. Bassist Milt Hinton played and recorded with just about everyone, till his death in 2000. He also had a camera with him most of the time and his pictures capture something none of the others could because he was an insider. He shot his friends under casual circumstances, in private or personal moments. He was an amateur (in the best sense of the word) but also a skilled photographer, so he produced a rich treasury, glimpses into the world of jazz of the classic era.

Geoff Dyer wrote an amazing and unusual book of jazz stories in a style he calls “imaginative criticism”. Based on true life stories and photographs of a handful of jazz luminaries, he’s composed tales – part fantasy, part biography – that are meant to convey impressionistic rather than literal truth. Rather than being about jazz, they are jazz, in a way.

Hinton’s photo below, and Dyer’s commentary, which I first came across almost twenty years ago, have had a influence on how I think about photography, jazz, memory, and life.

A Note on Photographs by Geoff Dyer

PHOTOGRAPHS SOMETIMES WORK on you strangely and simply: at first glance you see things you subsequently discover are not there. Or rather, when you look again you notice things you initially didn’t realise were there. In Milt Hinton’s photograph of Ben Webster, Red Allen and Pee Wee Russell, for example, I thought that Allen’s foot was resting on the chair in front of him, that Russell was actually drawing on his cigarette, that …

The fact that it is not as you remember it is one of the strengths of Hinton’s photograph (or any other for that matter), for although it depicts only a split-second the felt duration of the picture extends several seconds either side of that frozen moment to include – or so it seems – what has just happened or is about to happen: Ben tilting back his hat and blowing his nose, Red reaching over to take a cigarette from Pee Wee …

Oil paintings leave even the Battles of Britain or Trafalgar strangely silent. Photography, on the other hand, can be as sensitive to sound as it is to light. Good photographs are there to be listened to as well as looked at; the better the photograph the more there is to hear. The best jazz photographs are those saturated in the sound of their subject. In Carol Reiff’s photo of Chet Baker on-stage at Birdland we hear not just the sound of the musicians as they are crowded into the small stage of the frame but the background chat and clinking glasses of the nightclub. Similarly, in Hinton’s photo we hear the sound of Ben turning the pages of the paper, the rustle of cloth as Pee Wee crosses his legs. Had we the means to decipher them, could we not go further still and use photographs like this to hear what was actually being said? Or even, since the best photos seem to extend beyond the moment they depict, what has just been said, what is about to be said . . .

Photograph of Red Allen, Ben Webster, and Pee Wee Russell (1957) from Bass Line by Milt Hinton.
Text by Geoff Dyer, from But Beautiful , 1991.


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