If you know Hank O'Neal, you're lucky. Hank is among the most powerful and prudent behind-the-scenes forces in jazz today, and certainly one of the most creative and prolific. A photographer and author of more than a half dozen books on jazz and photography, Hank also has produced more than 100 jazz festivals and is founder of Hammond Music Enterprises and Chiaroscuro Records, where during the 1970s and 1980s he produced hundreds of jazz albums. Hank's first jazz book in 1973 was Eddie Condon's Scrapbook of Jazz, co-authored with the guitar legend himself. Hank also befriended and studied with photographer Berenice Abbott in the 1970s. And poet Allen Ginsberg took his wedding photos in 1985. Now Hank's book, The Ghosts of Harlem, has just been published in English by Vanderbilt University Press after languishing for years in French. [Photo of Hank O'Neal in 2006 by Ian Clifford]
The Ghosts of Harlem is nothing short of remarkable. For the book, Hank interviewed and photographed 42 jazz legends of the twenties, thirties and forties who lived and performed in Harlem during its renaissance years. Reading this book is like opening a time capsule. Legends here interviewed by Hank in the 1980s include Jonah Jones, Andy Kirk, Sy Oliver, Panama Francis, Cab Calloway and many others. Hank's accompanying photo portraits also tell a wordless story. As an interview hunter myself, I was left speechless by Hank's monumental "gets."
In Part 1 of my two-part interview with Hank, 68, the legendary photographer and author talks about a trip up to Harlem in the 1980s with producer John Hammond, why Harlem changed after the mid-1940s, the friction between swing musicians and beboppers, and his years working for the CIA:
Hank O’Neal: I came up with the title after an evening with producer John Hammond in 1985. That night, John, my future wife Shelley Shier, and I drove up to Harlem in my car to hear jazz at Small's Paradise, just before the club closed for good. The trip turned out to be John’s last trip uptown to hear music, and my first time to Small’s Paradise.
JW: That must have been like old times for Hammond?
HO'N: It was. As we drove through Harlem, John pointed out little-known places of historic note, like Fats Waller's apartment and the location of Connie's Inn. When we arrived at Small's, we went down into the basement and enjoyed the first set. Everyone in Al Cobb's C&J Orchestra knew John and lit up when they saw him. Afterward, back at my car, I noticed John was just standing and looking at an old building on 134th St. When I asked what he saw, John said, “That’s the club where I first heard Billie Holiday." The rusting sign on the building said Bar Hot-Cha Grill.
JW: That image must have haunted Hammond.
HO'N: I think so. As I looked around at the boarded up buildings in the area, I started to feel what he was feeling. The golden era of jazz John was referring to was gone—along with the musicians who had lived and played there. All had vanished, like ghosts.
JW: For those who don't know—what made Harlem special in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s?
HO’N: I wasn’t around back then, of course [laughs]. But after interviewing the 42 jazz musicians for my book, there were a number of aspects of Harlem that stood out for these guys. By the late twenties, there was a special sizzle there that set the neighborhood apart. It was naughty, exciting, emotional and a place unlike any other in the country. During this period, artistic people of all races mingled. Duke Ellington probably summed it up best when he said that Harlem back then was like something out of The Arabian Nights.
JW: What happened to cause a shift?
HO’N: By the end of World War II, changes began to occur. First and foremost, music tastes shifted, from swing to bebop. The shift hurt many of the establishments that had originally made Harlem special. With the rise of bop, dancing slowed, and places like the Savoy Ballroom, Renaissance Ballroom [pictured] and Small's Paradise suffered. That’s not to say that beboppers weren’t playing for dancers. They did. But by and large, the idea of dancing as a pastime began to decline.
JW: Why did that happen?
HO'N: The music was no longer preoccupied with creating a dance beat. There were complex technical aspects to the music, a secret language if you will, that separated those who could play bebop and those who couldn’t. When I interviewed drummer Panama Francis for my book, he disparaged the beboppers, saying they couldn’t play the bass drum or keep a steady beat because their legs weren't strong enough [laughs]. Panama told me the story of a Thelonious Monk audition for Lucky Millinder’s band in the mid-1940s and said he saw for the first time someone fall asleep at an audition.
JW: Who fell asleep?
HO'N: Monk [laughs]. On the piano.
JW: What else caused Harlem to change?
HO'N: The makeup of the community. When I interviewed Buddy Tate [pictured], he talked about how after World War II African-Americans who migrated from the South to Harlem for opportunities in New York weren't familiar with Harlem's established customs and pretty much disregarded them. So the demographics there shifted. The rise of drug use also had a big impact on the neighborhood's cohesion and safety for those who lived there and for those who came uptown to enjoy the music. [Photo of Buddy Tate in 1986 by Hank O'Neal]
JW: You’re accomplished in so many areas. How do you describe yourself?
HO'N: Busy [laughs]. I don’t put these interests in order. There isn't anything at the top of the list. At different points in my life, some of my interests have been more predominant than others. In truth, I've never had a profession. I prefer to be doing a lot of different things. When I was in college and afterward, I never sat down and said, "I’m going to be this or that."
JW: What did you do?
HO'N: I've always said to myself, “I’m not going to be this or that," and then did a fairly good job of staying away from things I had no talent for. I knew I was going to be a rotten engineer, so I stopped studying it at college. I also stopped playing baseball, since I wasn’t getting anywhere with that either.
JW: Seems like a dangerous way to approach life and a career.
HO'N: Art and music are always a struggle. Let’s face it, except for a tiny percentage of people, 99 percent of those who take photographs don’t make a living from it. The same is true for those who put on concerts. And certainly for those who write books. The amount of time it takes to produce a high-quality book compared with the remuneration isn’t in sync. So, you need many irons in the fire—and hopefully a lot of different fires [laughs]. [Photo of Hank O'Neal in his darkroom in 2003 by Ian Clifford]
JW: What drew you to photography growing up in Texas?
HO’N: My father carried a camera with him in the army throughout World War II. When he returned home, he continued taking photographs, making prints in a little darkroom in our home in Forth Worth. He somehow managed to buy a Speed Graphic camera and small wooden tripod, and took pictures. I have all the images he took—probably less than 250. Most are family type pictures and relatives.
JW: What about the ones from the war?
HO'N: The ones I’ve seen are interesting, mostly of celebrities who visited his Pacific bases. Many of his negatives are still rolled up tight in little containers. I tried to undo one years ago but it broke apart, having been rolled up for so long. Fortunately he made prints of many of them.
JW: When did you get your first camera?
HO'N: In the 7th grade I won a Hawkeye camera and kit in a grocery-store raffle. I remember hearing that I had won while in costume as the cabin boy in Billy Budd. I was about to run down to the grocery store to claim my prize, but my mother wouldn’t let me go until I took off the costume. So I did, and then raced down there. When I brought the camera back to the house, my father showed me how to use it. I immediately started taking pictures and developing them myself with the box and light kit that came with the camera. One of my earliest shots is of an 8th grade playmate dressed as a spaceman [pictured].
JW: While attending Syracuse University as an undergraduate, you were recruited by the CIA. Is that how you developed your famous photographic memory?
HO'N: Gosh, my memory is hardly photographic. I remember things pretty well, I guess, but I forget a lot, too. Back then I did have a capacity for remembering details. I attended college in the late 1950s as part of the ROTC program [pictured]. My dad being a career army officer thought it would be a good idea. I was recruited for the CIA in my sophomore year in 1959 at the suggestion of a professor. After graduation, I enrolled in Syracuse's graduate program in African studies. But just months from graduation, I couldn't write my thesis.
JW: Why not?
HO'N: Because I had already started working for the CIA in its Africa affairs division and writing my thesis would have meant divulging confidential information. So today I'm just a few credits short of a masters degree [laughs].
JW: What did you do in the CIA?
HO'N: I had three-stage career there. After I was recruited, I trained in clandestine services, where you learned how to follow someone through the streets and sneak across a border. But about halfway through training, I was sent to Washington, D.C. in 1963, to work temporarily in a position they were trying to fill. It was in the Africa affairs division of the CIA's Bureau of National Estimates.
JW: Why there?
HO'N: I had taken African studies in college, and one of my professors was leading the revolution in Mozambique. My move to Washington ended my career in clandestine services since I was exposed. I served seven or eight months in that group.
JW: What did you do in Washington?
HO'N: I spent my days writing estimates of what would happen in different parts of Africa if different scenarios took place. My reports were based on a foot-and-a-half of cable traffic each day, and my daily reports would eventually make their way to the National Security Agency and the president. I knew full well there was no career in that division for me. The position I was temporarily filling was for a 45-year-old PhD with 15 years of experience.
JW: What was your next job there?
HO'N: When they finally found a replacement for the person who had originally left, I was re-assigned to a domestic unit in New York in the CIA's Office of Operations. Back then, each major city in the country had one of these small offices where the people who worked there interacted with high-level businesspeople, professors, intellectuals, economists and other specialists.
JW: What was the purpose?
HO'N: To collect opinions about what was going on in the world or talk to them about their travels. In some cases I wrote down what these people told me. In other instances I had to walk around the city with them while they talked and then remember all of the key parts, which I'd write up after returning to the office. Over time, you develop skills for committing details to memory.
JW: Was it tedious work?
HO'N: To some extent. What was interesting is that I had to become a strong generalist. In the morning, I might be talking to a man about the economics of Western Europe and in the afternoon debriefing a nuclear physicist. To carry on a conversation and deduce the importance of what the other person was saying, you had to be knowledgeable about many topics. The job made me very curious about many different subjects.
JW: How did you come to write a book with Eddie Condon?
HO'N: I had first met Eddie in 1965. In the early 1970s, he lived around the corner from me in Greenwich Village. Jazz had always been a love of my mine but it didn't pay a living.
JW: Why did you leave the CIA?
HO'N: I had gone as far as I could go. So I just resigned in 1976. By then I had already built a recording studio but had other people running it for me. By 1976, I wanted to run it myself.
JW: So you can resign from the CIA just like that?
HO'N: Oh sure. I just wrote them a funny letter and that was it.
- Eddie Condon's Scrapbook of Jazz (1973)
- A Vision Shared: A Classic Portrait and Its People, 1935-1943 (1976)
- Berenice Abbott: American Photographer (1982)
- Life Is Painful, Nasty & Short: Informal memoir of Djuna Barnes (1990)
- Charlie Parker (French, 1995)
- The Ghosts of Harlem (French, 1997)
- Hank O'Neal: Portraits, 1977-2000 (2000)
- Gay Day: The Golden Age of the Christopher Street Parade. (2006)
- Berenice Abbott, Vols. I and II (2008)
- The Ghosts of Harlem (English, 2009)