Lester Young was the first jazz musician photographer Herb Snitzer captured with his camera. In fact, the image you see here of Young outside the Five Spot in New York is the first jazz photograph Herb ever took. Writer Nat Hentoff has called this image by Herb "the quintessential Lester Young photograph." This photo and the ones that follow were made in October 1958 by Herb on assignment for Metronome magazine.
All of Herb's photos of Young are at once reverential and revealing. You can see in Young's face the grace, wisdom and inside sense of humor. And if you look carefully, you even can hear Young's smooth, relaxed blues.
I'll let Herb pick up the story:
"When Lester appeared out of the darkness, I took this image [above], using just the light from the club window as illumination. At the time, I didn’t know who the other gentleman was who greeted Lester. I’ve recently been told it was pianist Hank Jones.
"Inside the club, I was nervous. Lester knew I was coming, but I wasn't sure how I was going to approach him. Also, the lighting was terribly dim, which didn't help my anxiety. Even though this was my first jazz shoot, I was well aware how famous Lester was in the music world. Fortunately, I was able to get within three feet of him while he was performing. The club’s patrons didn't seem to mind. There weren't many of them, which was sad to see. Maybe there were 20 people in the club.
"I didn’t use a flash, which would have been intrusive and annoying for Lester and the audience. I was technically secure, but I recall that I had to guess at the shutter/f-stop relationship most of the evening. I didn’t want to stop and check them. Even if I did, I doubt I would have been able to see a thing given the poor lighting.
"As I moved around, Lester didn't seem to mind, so I kept inching closer. He never said a word. Had I annoyed him, I’m sure he would have said something to me. But he just rolled with what I was there to do and seemed to understand the process.
"Backstage between sets, Lester was cordial. The backstage area wasn’t a dressing room. It was more like a storage area with a Coke machine. I had no real conversation with him. Just small talk. I was much too nervous. I remember Lester moved so slowly. His stride that night was not one of a well, confident man. The image of Lester with his head cocked [pictured] was taken while he was talking to his drummer, whose name escapes me.
"Bob and I stayed until 3 a.m. I shot off about five or six rolls of the trusty high-speed Tri-X film. When I returned to my studio, I had no sense of how the images had come out, but I was apprehensive. The club had been so dark that anything was possible. To minimize problems, I developed the film using what was then called 'inspection techniques.' This allowed me to watch the film being developed in the darkroom by using the right lighting conditions.
"I had to use this technique to be sure there was enough density on the film to make prints. If I had applied regular times for Tri-X film development, there might have been too little silver oxidized to make a print. So I kept checking the negatives to be sure I had enough silver resolution.
"After that night I never saw Lester again. He died six months later, on March 15, 1959. The images? They were used in the 1959 Metronome Yearbook."
All photos above by Herb Snitzer. ©Herb Snitzer—all rights reserved. All photos used here with the artist's permission.
JazzWax note: A limited number of silver gelatin, museum-finish prints of Lester Young are available for sale. Please contact Herb [pictured] directly at Herbsnitzer@aol.com.
More PhotoStories: I started this feature to showcase iconic jazz images and the stories of the photographers who took them. You'll find more PhotoStory posts under the "PhotoStory" heading in the right-hand column of this blog (JazzWax).