Hank O'Neal is a jazz entrepreneur and bohemian—a rare combination. Over the years, Hank has been a jazz record producer and concert promoter, and he continues to serve on the boards of several major organizations. To satisfy his soul, he has devoted much of his life to the arts. Hank is a prolific photographer, writer and book author. [Photo of Hank O'Neal by Ian Clifford]
For most people who listen to jazz, Hank's name probably won't ring a bell. That's because he prefers to keep a low profile. But among jazz industry powers and jazz legends, Hank is well known and highly regarded for his enormous kindness, modesty, generosity, talent, cool and smarts. He also has one massive network of friends in the arts and finance. With the publication of The Ghosts of Harlem, a handsome 492-page book of interviews and photographs of 42 jazz legends, Hank agreed to chat about his life and his passion for jazz.
In Part 2 of my interview series with Hank (whose birthday is today), the legendary photographer and author talks about his friendship with mentor photographer Berenice Abbott, the Artie Shaw record that first stirred his interest in jazz, and the effect vanishing jazz legends has had on him:
JazzWax: You knew photographer Berenice Abbott well.
Hank O’Neal: When I first met Berenice, she was 74 years old, and she lived to be 93. Because she was so old when I met her, she never seemed to age. At least not to me. She was always a serious artist with a salty edge. Actually, I met her quite by accident. [Photo of Berenice Abbott in 1978 by Hank O'Neal]
HO’N: Back in the early 1970s I was working with [guitarist] Eddie Condon on Eddie Condon’s Scrapbook of Jazz. It was my first book, and sadly his last. Ed wasn’t a book guy, so I worked with him on it. At one point Ed said we should talk to a friend of his, Genevieve Naylor, who had a lot of great photos. Genevieve was a magazine fashion photographer with a great eye for images and page layouts.
JW: What did Naylor say?
HO’N: Genevieve looked at Ed's material and said, “You have a lot of good stuff here but you don’t have a clue as to what you’re doing" [laughs]. She agreed to offer advice for laying out the book when Ed and I were ready. She said she was going to Maine for the summer with her photography teacher and left me the phone number there.
JW: What happened next?
HO’N: A couple of months later I was given a book of Berenice Abbott photos as a present. It was a terrific book and only the second one on photography that I had owned. The first was a Walker Evans book the Museum of Modern Art had sent me for being a member. In the back of the Berenice Abbott book, her bio said she taught in the 1960s and had since retired to Maine. I was very taken with her book. So I picked up the phone and called Genevieve. She answered, and we talked a bit about the Eddie Condon book. She had some fine suggestions. Before I hung up, I asked if she was staying with Berenice Abbott. She said she was. I told her I wanted to buy a couple of prints. [Photo of Hank O'Neal in 1976 by Liza Stelle, Eddie Condon's daughter]
JW: Did Abbott make them for you?
HO’N: Absolutely. I ordered two prints, and two months later Berenice and I met at the Holiday Inn on 57th St. She charged me $300 for them, and we had lunch and talked. After, she said if I was ever up in Maine, I should drop by.
JW: Did you go?
HO’N: You bet I did. The first time I was up there in the early 1970s, I asked if I could take her picture. She asked what kind of camera I had. I told her a Polaroid XS-70. “That’s not a camera, that’s a goddamn toy,” she snapped. I insisted it wasn’t a toy, that Walker Evans had just used one on a new project. [Photo of Berenice Abbott on Lake Hebron, Maine, in 1977 by Hank O'Neal]
JW: What did Abbott say?
HO’N: Berenice shrugged and let me take her picture. As fate would have it, I had a bad film pack. The image that slid out of the Polaroid had white spots all over it. Which gave her a chance to call the camera a "goddamn toy" again. I changed film packs, and the image finally came out right. And Berenice liked it. As I was getting ready to leave for New York, she said that I should call Edwin Land, the founder of Polaroid, and ask for good film. "Tell him I told you to call," she said in that gruff tone. Berenice also said that if I ever purchased a "real camera," I should come up and she’d show me how to use it.
JW: Did you call Land? And did you take Abbott up on her offer?
HO’N: Yes, I called Land and told him what Berenice had said. He sent me film [laughs]. And yes, I did take her up on her offer. Starting in the summer of 1974, I would go up and spend a few days. This went on until 1990. It was usually around her birthday in July. In her last years, there were fewer and fewer people who made the trip up.
HO'N: I bought a new Deardorff 8x10 field camera, a lens and a tripod. The gear cost me about $4,000 in mid-1970s dollars. That's what Berenice considered a "real" camera. [Photo by David Munson]
JW: What did Abbott teach you about photography?
HO’N: The love of craft and that every picture you take has to be part of a project. She said never take pictures willy-nilly. Only take them when you have a project in mind, which is a fascinating, pragmatic concept when you think about it. She believed that art should always have purpose.
JW: Did she teach you anything technical?
HO’N: Not really. When I arrived up in Maine, Berenice sat me down on the back porch, took out yellow pad and drew a picture of lens. She said, “Light comes in here and the image winds up upside down there. That’s enough of that. Let’s take pictures” [laughs]. At one point she put me in a room, tilted a wooden door with a knocker and told me to line up the Deardorff for a picture. On that camera, you have to work the swing and tile movements in the front and rear, which I did for about a half hour.
JW: How did you do?
HO’N: When Berenice got under the focusing cloth to have a look, she said, “You had better do a damn sight better than that, buster” [laughs]. Eventually I got it right.
JW: Abbott had quite an edge, didn't she?
HO'N: I remember she'd say, “You amateurs are all the same. You always want to take pictures of things you can’t take pictures of, like the snow at night.” So that night I went out and took a picture of a small building across the street with a Polaroid. I showed it to her next day. She looked at it and said, “Hmmm, pretty good. Can I have this?” [laughs]. [Photo of Berenice Abbott in 1991 by Hank O'Neal]
JW: What was the big take-away from your time with Abbott?
HO’N: Patience. As a photographer, you have to wait for what you want. She told me that for Changing New York, 1935-1938, she had planned the photographs for weeks just to be in the right position at the right time of day with the right light. Photography, she taught me, is about long periods of waiting and moments of action.
JW: Did your time with Abbott help you with your new book, The Ghosts of Harlem?
HO'N: The truth is the photographs I looked at most for inspiration for the book weren’t by Berenice. They were by Walker Evans. As someone who came from a rural background rather than a city, I identified with Evans’ portraits taken in the rural South more. Abbott was much more cool and detached than Evans. Bernice told me that she had tried to take photos in the South before the Farm Security Administration photography project began in 1935. She said, “I didn’t have the heart to put my camera in the faces of those people.” [Photo of a Hale County, Alabama, woman in 1936 by Walker Evans]
JW: What first drew you to jazz?
HO’N: One record. Growing up in Texas, my father had a lot of classical records, and my mom had operatic records. Sometime in the late 1930s, my mom went to a movie starring Jeanette McDonald and Nelson Eddie. She loved Indian Love Call that was featured in the movie so much that on her way home she stopped off at a record store. But the salesman sold her Artie Shaw’s version, which was hardly Jeanette and Nelson. So after she played it at home, my mother left the record on the side. In the early 1950s, I was allowed to play it, and when I did, I was struck.
JW: As a photographer, what were you waiting for when you photographed each of the jazz legends for your book?
HO’N: The right expression. I wanted to capture each musician in as relaxed a setting as possible. So I’d haul my equipment to Clark Terry's house or Dizzy Gillespie's basement. I also thought the images would be more historically important if they showed them in these settings than against a blank wall. [Photo of Dizzy Gillespie in 1990 by Hank O'Neal, from The Ghosts of Harlem]
JW: You managed to capture a generation of musicians just at the tail end of their lives. What united them?
HO’N: Almost without exception, they all were extraordinarily professional and dignified in what they did, provided they could do it without interference. For the most part, all lived satisfying lives. Some of these guys were up in their years and sort of slow. But they all seemed to have the information in there somewhere. You just had to draw it out.
JW: What did you learn about Harlem through these artists?
HO’N: That back then Harlem was a place where you stayed, where you made a home. There was no need for these guys to go downtown. Everything was right there uptown. It was a place unto itself. [Photo of Chick Webb's band at the Savoy Ballroom in 1929 by Berenice Abbott, courtesy of Hank O'Neal]
JW: Do you think your interview subjects overly romanticized Harlem?
HO'N: No, not at all. It was as good as they said it was. Eventually they left Harlem because much changed there over time. But when they and other African-American artists moved to other neighborhoods in the 1940s and 1950s, there was a creative drain. At the time of my book in the mid-1980s, only three of the 42 jazz musicians I interviewed still lived in Harlem. Everyone else lived elsewhere.
JW: What did you learn from this project about yourself?
HO’N: That if you stick to something long enough, it will happen. My book originally was for a U.S. publisher that pulled the plug on the project. So a French publisher picked it up, but published the book in French. So all of the interviews and photos have been frozen in time, kept from American jazz fans because of the language barrier. Now, 22 years later, the book has finally been published in English thanks to Vanderbilt University Press. So you see, any book project, you have to keep pushing ahead, even those published in French [laughs].
JW: What did you learn as an artist?
HO’N: I don’t know that I learned anything as a writer or a photographer. The book was just something that I wanted to do, so I worked hard and accomplished it. I went in trying to find out where Harlem went, why it disappeared and when that happened. I think I came out with fascinating answers. [Photo of Hank O'Neal in 1990 by Berenice Abbott]
JW: Do you miss the legends you interviewed who have since died?
HO’N: Oh, of course. They were all terrific people. It was fun to be able to call Dizzy on any given day and talk about a wide range of things. The second album I owned by an individual artist rather than a band was Dave Brubeck’s Jazz Goes to College. The fact that I can pick up the phone now and call Dave to talk is a wonderful thing.
JazzWax note: For more portraits of Berenice Abbott and other artists and celebrities, visit Hank O'Neal's site here.