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Tuesday, April 26, 2016

The Blue Note Photographs of Francis Wolff

For two decades, Francis Wolff photographed every jazz session that Blue Note Records made. He not only preserved a major part of jazz history, but with his remarkable eye, he captured amazing candid portraits of great artists that reveal the joy and intensity of jazz at the point of creation.
--Michael Cuscuna, founder of Mosaic Images

Curtis Fuller at his June 16, 1957 session for "The Opener" at the Van Gelder Studio, New Jersey.  All the photographs shown in this blog were created by Francis Wolff and are from the Archives Center's Francis Wolff Jazz Photoprints collections, National Museum of American History, the gift of Michael Cuscuna and Mosaic Images.
Michael Cuscuna donated twenty-five silver gelatin photographic prints to the Archives Center in 2011, and this April we were pleased to display twelve of these photographs as part of the festivities for Jazz Appreciation Month.  The exhibition, "The Blue Note Photographs of Francis Wolff," will continue until June 30, 2016. It is located in the space outside the Archives Center entrance in the West Wing, on the first floor of the National Museum of American History. Examples of Blue Note LP record albums which utilized Wolff's photographs are included in the exhibition.

John Coltrane and Lee Morgan at Coltrane's September 15, 1957 session for
"Blue Train" (Blue Note) at the Van Gelder studio, New Jersey
Natives of Berlin, Germany, Francis Wolff and Alfred Lion became friends in 1924 when they discovered their mutual interest in jazz.  Like many Europeans, they had an outsider’s enthusiasm for this American art form.  Lion pursued his passion by moving to New York City in 1928, while Wolff remained in Berlin as a commercial photographer. Lion founded Blue Note Records in 1939 and asked Wolff to join him in New York.  Wolff hesitated, although as a Jew his life in Germany was in imminent danger.  He escaped Nazi Germany in the nick of time, and he and Lion released their first jazz recording in 1939.  The company emphasized traditional jazz at first, but by the late 1940s, Blue Note became a major leader in introducing the innovations of modern jazz and avant-garde styles, as well as the talented musicians who created it.  The co-founders of Blue Note treated their artists with consideration and respect, fostering an atmosphere of creativity and excitement.

Alfred Lion and Thelonious Monk at Monk's May 30, 1952 session for
"Genius of Modern Music" (Blue Note) at WOR Studios, New York City
While Alfred Lion supervised the music at Blue Note Records, Francis Wolff handled the business side.  He started photographing the recording sessions as a personal hobby.  His photographs became the label’s trademark when they were incorporated into album cover designs in 1956.  From then on, with his twin-lens, square-format Rolleiflex camera always at hand, Wolff was the label’s official photographer.  His images immortalized recording sessions by the top artists of modern jazz and revealed the camaraderie that made Blue Note a special creative place.  Using an off-camera flashgun held at arm’s length for unposed images, he embraced the interplay of light and shadow with expression and mood, making the musicians with their instruments look powerful and dramatic against deep black backgrounds. The often square or nearly square proportions of Wolff's pictures reflect his talent in utilizing the full 2-1/4 x 2-1/4" format of his camera, composing to the edge. When Lion retired in 1967, Wolff stopped photographing the recording sessions and became the company’s producer until his death in 1971.

Horace Silver at the November 23, 1955 session for "The Jazz Messengers at Cafe Bohemia 
Each year the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) honors selected musicians as “Jazz Masters.”  Many NEA Jazz Masters recorded for Blue Note records and were photographed by Francis Wolff.  Art Blakey—shown below at his January 24, 1962 session for “The African Best”— was one.  Others included Ron Carter, Ornette Coleman, J.J. Johnson, Curtis Fuller, Dexter Gordon, Max Roach, Wayne Shorter, McCoy Tyner, Horace Silver, and Jimmy Smith, all represented in the Francis Wolff collection.

Art Blakey at his January 24, 1962 session for "The American Beat" at the Van Gelder Studio, New Jersey 
Francis Wolff's photographs have been reproduced in book form, notably in The Blue Note Years: The Jazz Photography of Francis Wolff, by Michael Cuscuna, Charlie Lourie, and Oscar Schneider, with a foreword by Herbie Hancock (New York: Rizzoli, 1995); but this is the first time these photographs from the Archives Center's collections, beautifully printed from Wolff's negatives in the Mosaic Images collection, have been placed on public view in the National Museum of American History.  A few days after this small exhibition opened I chanced to mention it in an email to a Spanish friend who also has been a photographer of jazz musicians, and is now a doctoral candidate in the history of photography, Lourdes Delgado. She said that years ago she met the man who printed Wolff's photographs in New York and saw the images. I first met Lourdes when our Museum's Curator of American Music, Dr. John Edward Hasse, introduced her to me while she was living in New York. Wolff photographed musicians at work, during rehearsals and performances, but Lourdes photographed them in their home environments. Dr. Hasse, the creator of Jazz Appreciation Month, is a great Archives Center collaborator, frequently bringing the work of talented photographers of musicians to our attention and facilitating acquisitions, especially in the field of jazz, and his efforts have enriched Archives Center collections enormously.

David Haberstich
Curator of Photography, Archives Center
National Museum of American History      

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