Photographer’s images capture heady days of jazz

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5/21/2008, 12:43 a.m. PDT
The Associated Press

ST. LOUIS (AP) — Herb Snitzer’s photography from a half-century ago shows there’s more than one way to record a jazz musician.

Beyond the turntable or downloaded tracks, his black-and-white photographs capture for the eyes what music does for the ears, freezing moments to allow for replay later.

The self-described “white, Jewish guy” moved to New York City in 1957 after college and soon developed a reputation for his photography. Much of it focused on the black jazz stars of the day.

His camera caught both the on-stage electricity of live performances, such as heavyset singer Velma Middleton shaking it for all its worth, and the unguarded after-hours moments, like trumpeter Louis Armstrong having a smoke on a hot tour bus.

About 50 of Snitzer’s photos went on display last weekend at the Sheldon Art Galleries in St. Louis. “Herb Snitzer: Photographs from the Last Years of Metronome, 1958-1962,” runs through Sept. 20.

While Snitzer took photos for decades and worked for publications from Life to Look, the show focuses on his images for Metronome, then one of the country’s leading jazz magazines. It also includes his images of New York City.

“The city just grabbed me. It was so dynamic and electric, I just wanted to be part of that,” Snitzer said. While he sometimes traveled with performers for his shots, he often didn’t need to.

“Basically, it was happening in New York. I didn’t have to go very far. That’s where the musicians were; it was happening there,” he said.

Snitzer, now 75, lives in St. Petersburg, Fla., with his wife, artist Carol Dameron. He was born in Philadelphia to parents who left the Ukraine during a pogrom.

He attended the Philadelphia College of Art, where he first studied interior design. Drafted into the Army during the Korean War, he started taking photos of parachute jumps. He studied photography when he returned to school and later got jobs in New York assisting well-known photographers. Soon he was selling his own work.

For Snitzer, photographing jazz was more than making a living — it was “an act of solidarity with Americans suffering injustice,” wrote the show’s curator, Benjamin Cawthra.

Snitzer said several photographers who focused on jazz at the time were white, Jewish men. He thinks they shared an affinity with the black musicians they photographed, though he doesn’t know exactly why. Maybe something spoke to them in the wail of the music. Maybe it was because they understood trying to overcome tough histories, he mused.

For years, jazz magazines rarely featured black artists on their covers. But stars such as Coleman Hawkins and Miles Davis were featured on Metronome when Snitzer served as its photo editor, Cawthra said.

In one his best-known photographs, Snitzer captured a side of Armstrong the public rarely saw. Armstrong’s shirt is open, showing a Star of David necklace, and the performer looks frankly at the camera. There is no trace of the beaming smile fans are accustomed to seeing.

“It surprises people. There’s no question about that. It’s the human side to Pops,” Snitzer said of the photo, using Armstrong’s nickname. The Star of David necklace was worn in honor of a Russian Jewish family that befriended Armstrong when he was a boy in New Orleans.

Snitzer said Armstrong didn’t have a prejudiced bone in his body, though he once saw the performer denied access to a bathroom “in Connecticut, of all places.”

Still, Snitzer said, he never felt any racial tension with the musicians.

“I was simply taken into the so-called jazz family,” he said. “It wasn’t, hey, there’s a photographer in the house. It was, hey, Herb’s here.”

Snitzer recalled photographing Dizzy Gillespie in Boston while the musician was on a publicity tour. At the last stop, Snitzer realized he’d left his car on the other side of the city.

“Take my limo,” Gillespie told him.

“I said: `I can’t take your limo. How are you going to get to the hotel?'”

Snitzer said Gillespie pretended to be pained, placed his hands over his heart in mock anguish, and insisted the photographer take his ride.

“He said: `Herb, I’m Dizzy Gillespie. I’ll get to the hotel.”

One of Snitzer’s shots of Gillespie shows little of the performer, but there is no mistaking who’s in the picture. A horn raised to Gillespie’s mouth runs along one side of the frame, while his eyes are closed behind glasses and his right cheek is puffed out as he plays with a hand sporting a pinkie ring.

Snitzer also has an upcoming show at The Arts Center in St. Petersburg, Fla., chronicling his first and last five years of work. The photographs will be on display from Nov. 14 to Jan. 3.


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