Photographer Bob Willoughby was a friend of JazzWax. Before his death in December 2009, we corresponded about a book idea he was shopping around from his home in Vence, France. Bob and I first became acquainted when I asked him for the story behind his famous photos of tenor saxophonist Big Jay McNeely performing at the Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles in 1951. What knocked me out in particular, was the euphoria on teens' faces as they listened in ecstasy to Big Jay playing on his back from the stage. [Pictured at top, Bob Willoughby and Jean Seberg during the filming of Saint Joan in 1957 by Bob Willoughby; below, Bob's photo of Big Jay McNeely]
When Bob and I began emailing, he seemed resigned to the fact that his new book might not be picked up by a publisher and frustrated that his contribution to jazz and R&B might be forgotten. As he wrote me in July 2009...
"This is a new book with so much more in it [than my earlier books], including a section shot in Stuttgart two different years [1992 and 1994] when they brought me out of retirement to photograph their jazz concerts. With the publishing world being what it is, photo books are expensive and don't sell like Harry Potter. If you know of a publisher who would like to do my Jazz, Body & Soul book, do let me know. I like your site, and I am sure we can work together again. Our part of France is very lovely today. All good wishes, Bob [pictured]."
I am happy to report that Bob's project did find a home, and the result has just been published. I am also happy to tell you that Bob Willoughby's Jazz: Body and Soul (Evans Mitchell Books) contains one revealing photograph after the next, exposing you to different sides of artists you know. But there's a mystery here: How a 192-page, hardcover book of gorgeous black-and-white images can cost only $21.79 is beyond me. But take advantage of the price before the copies are all snapped up.
Born June 30, 1927 in Los Angeles, Bob received a camera as a present on his 12th birthday. After high school, he studied cinema at night at the USC Cinema Department and design with Saul Bass at the Kahn Institute of Art. He also apprenticed with several Hollywood photographers, including Wallace Seawell, Paul Hesse, and Glenn Embree. [Photos of Elvis Presley and Sophia Loren in 1958 by Bob Willoughby]
Bob's career as a professional photographer began in 1954 when Warner Bros. hired him to capture Judy Garland's final scene in A Star Is Born. His portrait of Garland became his first Life magazine cover. For the next 20 years, Bob's images for Hollywood's film studios found their way into print weekly. These photos were taken on the sets of more than 100 films, including My Fair Lady, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Graduate and Rosemary's Baby.
What makes Bob's images of movie stars special is their intimacy and journalistic integrity. Even though Bob was hired by studios to portray subjects as glamorous stars, he always found a way to humanize them—either by waiting for moments of vulnerability and angular intensity or situations that brought them down to earth. The average movie-goer saw Bob's photos and said to themselves, "Hey, they're just like me—only different." [Photo above of Audrey Hepburn by Bob Willoughby]
Bob didn't discriminate. He used the same approach with iconic jazz musicians years before he turned pro. Bob loved jazz and R&B—which were impossible not to appreciate in Los Angeles of the late 1940s and early 1950s. In my email conversation with Bob about the Big Jay photos, Bob said he was in his darkroom when he heard about a concert at the Olympic. [Photo above by Bob Willoughby]
When he arrived, Bob said, he was astonished by both the energy of the performance and the trance-like reaction by teens. At the dawn of small-group R&B, Bob rushed to the stage where the action was unfolding and began clicking. These photos are included in the book and explain in pictures why jazz would soon lose its appeal among young listeners.
In Jazz: Body and Soul, each of Bob's jazz images—from Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday to Gerry Mulligan, Peggy Lee and Paul Desmond—portrays these artists mid-performance and fully aware of their specialness and impact on audiences. [Photo of Peggy Lee above by Bob Willoughby]
As Dave Brubeck notes in the book's introduction...
"By 1951, the [Dave Brubeck] trio that had broadcast on NBC had become a quartet with the addition of Paul Desmond on alto saxophone. We were making our first West Coast appearances away from home ground, San Francisco, when we met Bob Willoughby. It was a big deal. We got into our cars (mine was a Kaiser Vagabond) and drove to Los Angeles to play at a club called The Haig, a converted bungalow situated across the street from the Ambassador Hotel.
"Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker and I had made a trade. They would play at the Black Hawk, our San Francisco headquarters, while we took over their regular spot at The Haig. During that initial engagement, Bob Willougby took some spectacular photos of our group.... Paul [Desmond] and I always felt at ease with Bob behind the camera. He not only had a good eye, he had a keen ear, and seemed to know when to snap an inspired moment." [Both album cover images above by Bob Willoughby]
Like all great jazz photographers, Bob was big on juicing the mystique of jazz. His image of June Christy at the Rendezvous Ballroom in Balboa, Calif., in 1950 is a perfect example. She's a portrait in italic—leaning forward on the piano in profile with a citrus-y smile on her face that exposes her natural excitement. Gerry Mulligan, also in profile, was photographed in full playing the baritone saxopone—giving you a sense of how gangly he was (and how large his feet were). [Photo of June Christy above by Bob Willoughby]
Bob loved working in the track lighting above subjects in studios, which added to the drama and "sound" of an image. There are "lights above" images of Desmond, Mulligan, Baker and others. Bob also often photographed jazz musicians at rest. His candid of Baker relaxing on a folding chair portrays the raw and restless confidence of the laid-back trumpeter. Or dig the candid of Harry James talking to Gene Krupa between takes on the set of The Benny Goodman Story in 1955. [Photo of Chet Baker above by Bob Willoughby]
Bravo EMB. You not only made Bob's dream come true, you've also reproduced his images and words lovingly and at a price-point most people can afford. To this day, Bob's images make me want to reach for the recordings to hear what these artists sound like. [Photo of Gerry Mulligan above by Bob Willoughby]
JazzWax notes: To read my post on Bob Willoughby's famed photo of Big Jay McNeely and the Olympic Auditorium concert, go here.
Take a look inside the book here.
For more on Bob Willoughby, go here.
JazzWax pages: Bob Willoughby's Jazz: Body and Soul (Evans Mitchell Books) can be found here.