Growing Up Dingo: the Evolution of Jazz

Miles Davis at the Savoy. Photo: Richard Schulman.

I used to say that if I had seen Coltrane, I would have seen them all.

Why so many people tried to play his notes is not a mystery. It is the same reason so many basketball players  try to be like “Mike”(Michael Jordan). Everyone wants to meet greatness head on. Sometimes it is a challenge, sometimes it is just to understand its meaning. Either way, it is not a life for everyone.

There are many stories about those who try to rise to profound heights and accomplishments. We are raised to do the best you can. We are not educated about the limits of our capabilities: we should never have that education.

We merely need to understand that in our ambitions to reach someone else’s pinnacle, we may feel that we have to cheat life a bit to get there. If we think that our goal is to be the envy of our worlds, be careful how high you might get: too close to the sun, you might burn and crash: “Poof” like Icarus.

My first introduction to jazz was a settling down in my parents den listening to Benny Goodman’s version of Louis Prima’s “Sing, Sing, Sing (With a Swing).” It might have been the first “78” record I had listened to. I think I can still see that eight year old swing to it.

The Watts’ Riots; I saw Count Basie, Joe Williams and Ella Fitzgerald at the “Watts Concert” to revitalize the neighborhood. Then there were gun shots, and a crowd dispersement interrupted the engagement.

There are turning points in every young adult. The turning points change as we evolve. Revisiting the past is a time machine: It can only be a magical ride.

My first public beer I had with my father: San Francisco 1971. I was seeing Gerry Mulligan. I will never forget the waitress asking this underaged teen, “what would the gentleman like to drink tonite”. I remember a low cut dress as she leaned closer to my eyes. I might have said, “A Heineken”. She smiled “Coming right up”. Wow, some sax player, a beer with my dad and uncle. A great evening was shaping up.

I remember sitting in the Hollywood Bowl listening and watching Sun Ra’s huge orchestra of his jazz army toying with the crowds’ passion for music. I ate from the picnic basket. I had something to drink. Most importantly, with eyes closed and friends abound, Jazz was becoming part of my DNA.

I remember I was supposed to meet a friend at a jazz club under an overpass in West Los Angeles.

He never showed. I couldn’t find a seat. I went to the back of the club that was designed like an amphitheater. The organist Jimmy Smith played two sets. I walked out that night remembering my happy face and feeling Jimmy performed just for me.

Later that year I was the only white guy at the Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach. I went to see Stanley  Turrentine perform Sugar, Cherry, Salt Song and… Two sets later, I exited wearing the same sunglasses that I entered the club with. I can still hear the voices; “Who does that white kid think he is?”

I moved to New York to pursue my photography career. I thought shooting musicians was an interesting place to start.

A friend introduced me to Marian McPartland. I was not aware of her NPR series. When I went to her home to shoot her, the first thing she said was, “Why don’t you sit by me on the bench?”

For about thirty minutes I had forgotten why I was there. I just listened to her play. She would whisper, ”Turn the page please”.  I was completely oblivious to time. When I came to my senses I realized I had just a few moments to make a snap. There is such a wow factor in a snap.

I never saw her again. It is impossible to forget the keys playing and the window light and just me listening to the ivories.

I landed one night at the Savoy on West 44th street in Manhattan. I was shooting for a small  music magazine. I had seen Miles Davis at the Santa Monica Civic in California. But tonite, I was using the stage to rest my cameras and stare and listen to the greatest name in jazz history.

Yes there is Coltrane, Cannonball, Parker and a whole list of magnificent desirables. But this was me. This was Miles.

There is a fuse that catches fire when I am this close to greatness. My heart danced a bit differently that night. I was in the presence of a great artist. I will always wonder what he thought of the print I sent him. Maybe it doesn’t matter: it was me and Miles at the Savoy.

I remember shooting Dizzy a few months later at the Blue Note.

I remember shooting Freddie Hubbard at the Blue Note.

I remember shooting Nat Adderley and Ron Carter at the Vanguard.

I remember dozens of jazz moments. Sometimes I think all those moments crystallized when I was listening to Lonnie Liston Smith at the Bandshell in Central Park: Every musical Jazz moment seems to be connected to the family of Jazz: The family of Jazz that possibly evolved with every performance across the globe. With every performance the practitioners are sharing keys to notes performed generations earlier and for generations to follow.

Today I look at my archives and reflect on all of the venues where I have seen Jazz musicians. If you take all of those names and places and throw them into a magicians hat, what you will see is my evolution. My evolution is certainly a reflection of my experiences. The influences in my life from the live music opportunities I have had are embraceable. They are like living in Fantasia’s celluloid. Then there is Dingo.

The movie is not great cinema. To see Miles. To hear the voice of a genius is a reward unto itself.

What captured my soul was to hear Miles sell:  “When you feel you are ready, come to Paris”. Dreams are made from those few words. Jazz dreams.

Richard Schulman is a photographer and writer. His books include Portraits of the New Architecture and Oxymoron & Pleonasmus. He lives in New York City.