I don't think of Herb Snitzer as a photographer, although that's exactly what he is. Herb to me is a sculptor, someone who uses his hands to preserve the souls of his jazz subjects. His images offer textured revelations and make me feel as though I've just run my own hands slowly across his subjects' faces. All of his photos seize fleeting moments that provide a window into who these musicians were as people and how they felt about life and art. Through Herb's photos, I always have the sense that I know something more about these musicians that I didn't know before and never could have learned through their music or a written profile. Herb's humanism and deep respect for jazz artists and their music is abundantly clear in his astonishing new book, Glorious Days and Nights: A Jazz Memoir (University Press of Mississippi).
About half the book is devoted to Herb's recollections about life, his struggles and the jazz subjects whose images he captured for magazines and record companies. The other half features 85 breathtaking black-and-white images. You can hear the music pouring off the pages. You can hear the energy and excitement of their genius. And you sense their humility and ambition. There are marvelous candids of Lester Young, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, Billie Holiday, Nina Simone and so many others. But these aren't snapshots or portraits. They are much more than that. They are emotional X-rays. Herb waited and waited and waited for just the right expression or situation, which often appeared once and in a split second. Somehow, his patience managed to pay off by summing up the artist perfectly.
In addition to being a superb photographer, Herb is a tender writer and story-teller. His recollections about jazz's great artists are remarkably well-told tales. Herb has great empathy and sensitivity in his writing and images, and you see this in the meditative stillness of his photos. Look at this one of John Coltrane in contemplation backstage at the Village Gate. Or the one in his book of Nina Simone perched on a stool, her body slightly twisted, passionately delivering a song from her heart. Herb's photos are as much about form as they are about content.
Here's the opening paragraphs from his first chapter:
"One day after graduating from college in June of 1957, I arrived in New York City to stay. You could park on the streets back then. I had driven my brother Ed's '51 Mercury from Philadelphia up New Jersey through the Lincoln Tunnel to Manhattan's West Side, where I rented a two-and-a-half room, fifth-floor walk-up on 70th Street right off Central Park West for $70 a month. I was ready to capture the world.
"Getting there had not been easy or fun. I was a child of the the thirties, a son of refugee parents who really had no idea how to raise children. They got off the boat and settled in Philadelphia, the cradle of liberty and the home of the Quakers, but I doubt they knew much about that. My brother and I had to suffer through a lower-middle class insulated Jewish life, where art and music were considered frivolous activities and where fear and poverty were never far away."
Or consider Herb's story about his attempt while on staff at Metronome magazine to convince President-elect Kennedy to include Dizzy Gillespie in his pending inaugural celebration:
"One time David Solomon, the magazine's managing editor, told me to call President-elect Kennedy, who was then at his family home in Florida—prior to his being inaugurated as the 35th president of the United States. I thought Dave was out of his mind, and I told him so. He said, 'There are no black performers and no jazz performers at Kennedy's inaugural, and we should call Kennedy and tell him to do something about that.'
"I still thought he was asking for the moon. I said, 'Just pick up the phone and call the president-elect of the United States, and when he answers, I'll just introduce myself and ask him to include Dizzy Gillespie at the inaugural ball. Just like that?'
"Dave said, 'Yep, just like that, Herb. Do it.'
"I went to my desk and called the information operator in Palm Beach. I asked for the telephone number of President-elect John Kennedy. She gave it to me.
"I dialed, the phone rang, and a man answered. I said, 'This is Herb Snitzer from Metronome magazine. I'd like to talk with President-elect Kennedy.'
"Trying to stay composed, I told Salinger that Kennedy ought to invite Dizzy Gillespie to the inaugural ball. He said that Frank Sinatra was handling those details and I should talk to him about it. He gave me the number in California, thanked me for calling and hung up.
"I dialed Sinatra's number, and his manager answered. I told him the same thing I told Salinger, that Dizzy Gillespie should appear at the inaugural. He said he'd deliver my message to Frank, and we hung up...
On December 27, the magazine dispatched a telegram to the President-elect urging him to include Dizzy... But Mr. Kennedy, through the offices of Sinatra, declined the offer, saying, 'There wasn't enough time to squeeze John Birks in...'
"We later heard back that Sinatra was very angry with us for contacting the president-elect, but no more so than we were angry at Sinatra for forgetting his roots."
This is photography and story-telling at its best. You'll find that the images talk to you, that you'll hear the music and you'll feel you know these musicians more intimately than you did. Herb's images over the years let you see something fresh about the artist's true nature through an expression or a moment. This book is about a lifetime of waiting and acting. The result is sheer jazz poetry.
JazzWax note: Herb Snitzer's Glorious Days and Nights: A Jazz Memoir is available here. It's a coffee-table-size book, and the quality of reproductions is excellent, with the black-and-white images glistening as though someone has given them a fine shoeshine.
More on Herb Snitzer here.