NEW HAVEN — Who’s the top bassist in jazz history: Jimmy Blanton? Milt Hinton? Ray Brown? Charles Mingus? Paul Chambers? Ron Carter? The question is unanswerable. Excellence eludes tabulation.
All right, so who’s the top photographer in jazz history: Herman Leonard? William P. Gottlieb? Milt Hinton? William Claxton? Francis Wolff? Chuck Stewart? That question, too, is unanswerable. Same reason.
Excellence can, however, embrace diversification. You may have noticed one name appears in both of the preceding paragraphs. Hinton, known as “The Judge” for his Solomonic keeping of time, played with everyone from Louis Armstrong and Art Tatum to John Coltrane and multiple members of the Marsalis family. He also was a much-in-demand studio musician, playing on everything from advertising jingles to early rock ’n’ roll. That’s Hinton’s bass line kicking off the Drifters’ “Under the Boardwalk.”
Thanks to that variety of work — and longevity (Hinton lived to be 90) — he’s been called the most-recorded musician in history. He’s definitely the biggest musical picture-taker. Hinton, who got his first camera in 1935, eventually took 60,000 photographs. As with his playing, quality and quantity coincided. That fact is amply demonstrated by “Jazz Lives: The Photographs of Lee Friedlander and Milton Hinton.” It runs at the Yale University Art Gallery through Sept. 7.
Friedlander, not a jazz photographer, per se, is a great photographer, period. As prolific as he is eclectic, he’s probably photographed more subjects better than anyone alive. One of those subjects has been jazz. He’s always been a highly improvisational photographer, and so many of his images are like inspired riffs: in the pocket as well as in the moment. In fact, when Atlantic Records was a leading jazz label, back in the late ’50s and early ’60s, Friedlander freelanced for the company.
He has nearly four dozen photographs in “Jazz Lives.” They come from visits he made to New Orleans from 1957 to 1982. New Orleans is to jazz as the Holy Land is to Christianity, only funkier and with far better food. Reverence is not too strong a word for what comes across in these images of old musicians and brass bands and second line revelers.
But it’s reverence of an unusual sort: the sum of respect and affection. There’s nothing sentimental or pious here. These photographs are alive and alert as well as loving. They alternate between tumult and repose. The musicians in “Young Tuxedo Brass Band,” from 1959, are dancing as much as they’re playing. It’s their own music they’re dancing to. You can feel Friedlander dancing, too. Conversely, his portrait of the singer-pianist Sweet Emma Barrett has the classical balance of a Greek frieze. Flanked by a porch railing and an upright piano — one of the reasons Friedlander cherishes New Orleans is that it’s the sort of place where pianos are on porches — she looks coolly majestic and, what is not quite the same thing, majestically cool.
A quartet that Friedlander photographed in 1958 includes the guitarist Danny Barker. Barker figures in several of the 40 or so photographs that make up Hinton’s half of “Jazz Lives.” Like Barker, many of the musicians have names recognizable only to buffs: Chu Berry, Ike Quebec, Tyree Glenn, Jo Jones, Jimmy Rushing. Hinton makes sure that the viewer understands why Rushing was known as Mr. Five by Five. The music stand of the piano where the singer is seated frames his face in such a way that he looks like a Toltec idol. Other subjects are known to even the most casual music fan: Armstrong, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday (from her late, “Lady in Satin” phase). Thanks to Hinton’s work as a session musician, Sam Cooke and Aretha Franklin show up, too.
Friedlander’s camera belongs to an outsider, however informed, however sympathetic. Hinton’s offers an inside view. There are pictures from on tour, in the studio, on the scene. Hinton captures Barker and a young Dizzy Gillespie asleep on a train. There’s clowning around at a New York musician’s hangout, Beefsteak Charlie’s. Rehearsal shots from the legendary 1957 CBS “Sound of Jazz” telecast are glimpses of Valhalla on a soundstage. Hinton also offers matter-of-fact social history. Several photographs allude to segregation, as when Berry and Glenn stand beneath a sign that bears the words “Hamburgers, Hot Dogs, Lunches” and, in much smaller type, “For Colored Only.”
The consistent feeling of gregarious fellowship in these photographs springs at least in part from a much larger absence of fellowship: these jazz insiders having had imposed on them outsider-status in the society at large. The fact that music and celebration are so deeply woven into the fabric of life in New Orleans — that inside and outside refer to space and nothing more — comes across again and again in Friedlander’s photographs. Lurking outside the frame in so many of Hinton’s photographs is the fact of apartness. It makes the music and celebration feel all the more intense for the knowledge that they were kept circumscribed.
“Don’t the moon look lonesome shining through the trees,” Rushing sings on the great Basie blues “Sent for You Yesterday.” Yes, it does. Showing the moon, as Hinton’s photographs so joyfully do, they also testify to the darkness of those trees.