When I first saw this image of Miles Davis playing the tenor saxophone,
I had a "what's wrong with this picture" moment. The photo
of the trumpeter clearly was taken in the early 1960s, and Davis was never known to have
doubled on the instrument. The blurry nature of the image also signified urgency. So I asked the person who sent it to me and was
told the image is from Swing, Bop & Free, a magnificent new book available only in Italy by Roberto Polillo, a photographer with a superb eye for jazz drama and poetry. Why is
Miles playing tenor? Whose tenor is it? Why is the image blurry? Roberto picks up the
"I took the blurred image of Miles Davis playing the tenor saxophone after a concert at the Teatro dell’Arte in Milano, on October 12, 1964. The concert was part of a two-day, four-concert jazz festival that was organized by George Wein and brought to Milano by my father, Arrigo Polillo. My father was, as always, heavily involved in the Italian jazz scene—as a critic, journalist and concert organizer. [Photo of Roberto Polillo in 1964 by Marco Polillo]"The list of musicians was impressive. The first day included Pee Wee Russell, Bud Freeman, Ruby Braff, J.J. Johnson, Howard McGhee, Sonny Stitt, Walter Bishop Jr., Tommy Potter and Kenny Clarke. The second day featured the Miles Davis Quintet—with Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and a very young Tony Williams, who was all of 18 years old at the time! [Photo of Roberto's father, Arrigo Polillo]
"I, too, was 18. A couple of years earlier, I had begun to accompany my father at jazz concerts to take photos for his jazz magazine, Musica Jazz. I was inexperienced and shy, and I worried about the difficult task of photographing Miles Davis. On that day, Miles was even more bad-tempered than usual.
"Before the afternoon concert that day, a journalist gently asked Miles if he could interview him. The journalist received no answer. But the fact that Miles had not been protected by my father from such an intrusion made him furious. He told my father coldly that he was not going to play. [Photo of Miles Davis in 1964 by Roberto Polillo]"A few minutes before the scheduled start time, my father politely asked Miles whether he needed something. The answer from Miles was a whistled, “YOU need a trumpet player.” Of course, Miles was just raising a fuss. He played the concert, and the group's performance was an enormous success.
"Every quarrel needs a reconciliation, and so it was with this one. After the concert, when the curtain had come down and my father and I were backstage, Miles suddenly seized Wayne Shorter’s saxophone. Smiling to my father, Miles began to blow into the sax, staggering in a curious way. It was his imitation of a “junky cat.” All the people around him laughed, and the earlier problems were forgotten and forgiven.
"I was nearby with my camera and just had time to make only one shot. There was no light, so I set a long exposure time, which resulted in the photo being blurred. That happened to be a good thing, I think, because it caught the dynamics of the scene.
"I believe I took the photograph with a Nikon F camera and a 105 mm lens using Ilford HPS film, which I stopped using shortly afterward in favor of the much better Kodak Tri-X.
"By the way, the man in the background smiling? That's my father."
All photos by Roberto Polillo ©Roberto Polillo—all rights reserved. Photos used with the artist's permission.
JazzWax note: Roberto is looking for an American publisher of Swing, Bop & Free, his book of jazz legend photos published in Italy. To contact Roberto, you can e-mail him here: email@example.com
JazzWax exhibit: The Siena Jazz Foundation is currently featuring an exhibit of Roberto's work in Siena, Italy. Go here for more information.
A special JazzWax thanks to Carl Woideck and Francesco Martinelli.