Book Review: David Wild ‘Jazzpaths’

Front Cover, Jazzpaths. Copyright David Wild. All Rights Reserved.

David Wild: ‘Jazzpaths’, book published by Hyphen Press and exhibition, ‘Jazzpaths and Other Fragments’ at Beardsmore Gallery. Review by Geoff Winston

David Wild is a passionate devotee of the vanguard jazz that he had the good fortune to experience directly during the two years that he worked as an architect in America. In 1965 on arrival in New York he saw Coltrane’s incredible original quartet (Tyner, Jones and Garrison, and once with Archie Shepp in tow). Later he saw its successor in Detroit. Talk about being in the right places at the right times! In addition to striking up acquaintances with the musicians, he had the presence of mind to document them with his Nikon F2. These photos, along with Wild’s finely composed, politically hinted photomontages, form the rich, visual soundtrack to the engaging story of his journey through jazz, which he tells in his new book, Jazzpaths.

The images are also the subject of a beautifully displayed exhibition at the Beardsmore Gallery, mounted to coincide with the book’s publication. The exhibition includes original vintage silver bromide prints, printed at the time from Wild’s negatives by Gamma in Chicago. These images also constitute the raw material of Wild’s deftly structured photomontages, whose messages still hit home with an eerie poignancy.

Many of the photos were taken during club performances. Understandably, it was hard for Wild to believe that he could always get a table and pay low entry prices to see these jazz icons – not only the Coltrane groups, but also the historic Miles Davis Quintet with Shorter, Williams, Hancock and Carter; Archie Shepp, whose poetry linked him with the political frontline, with Roswell Rudd and Howard Johnson; Dizzy with James Moody, and then the workshops of the AACM – a milieu where he first got to know Roscoe Mitchell and later, the nascent Art Ensemble of Chicago.

The photomontages, in the modernist political tradition of John Heartfield, also have resonances with Romare Bearden’s collages, creating a picture of the impoverished and riven urban context which was the backdrop to the impassioned expression of these musicians.

The evolution of Wild’s musical interests is charted from childhood – being taken to see Harry James at Radio City in New York aged four, through student days in Portsmouth, (scorning the ‘trad jazz’ duffle in favour of the cool jazz ‘Ivy League’ look); to London, where his arrival coincided with the opening of Ronnie Scott’s in Gerrard Street. He recounts an amusing episode at the RFH when Monk asked him for a light. To get a feel of the times, even at Dobells his request for Ornette’s ‘Change of the Century’ elicited a ‘best of luck, mate’ response. He did somewhat better on his first evening in New York, where he was taken to see the Shirley Scott Trio at Basie’s bar – the perfect start to his American jazz journey. Coltrane made a deep impression and Wild met him several times, capturing his moods and intensity in several shots onstage in Detroit.

The musicians also have a role in the cast of characters in Wild’s photomontages. The images are virtually all in glorious monochrome, even down to the boards on which they are mounted, imbuing them with both immediacy and pathos.

Elvin Jones, Chicago 1966. Copyright David Wild. All Rights Reserved.

A straining Elvin Jones, exploding with pent-up energy at the drumkit, is the centrepiece of ‘Alabama’ which positions him amongst Wild’s unsettling images of the ultra-conservative white political establishment, taken in New Orleans. Coltrane’s ‘Alabama’, the saxophonist’s response to the KKK bombing of a church in which four young girls were murdered, which also echoes the patterns of Martin Luther King’s funeral speech, is cited by Wild as a piece which particularly moved him and led to his first encounter with the musician in New York.

Dizzy Gillespie, photographed from all angles at The Plugged Nickel in Chicago, the hero of ‘Swing Low, Sweet Cadillac – Dizzy’, is set off against an aerodynamic, pristine white Cadillac body, which slashes the image in two, and above which are scrapyards, decaying urban terraces, a shack serving as a church and the city’s poor. An array of Stars and Stripes flags blend in to the foreground, so often drafted as symbols invoked to gloss over the reality of America’s unforgiving industrial machine.

‘Automobile Blues’ bonds an elegant street accordionist, photographed outside a Walgreens in St Louis, with the decay and desolation of the urban hinterland – the auto graveyards, and a car shell used for target practice.

‘The Preacher’ takes its title from Horace Silver’s classic, funky tune of 1955. Wild’s photo of Silver’s New Years Eve performance at The Plugged Nickel is interposed with a shot of a jack-leg preacher clasping his tambourines, and a cinema fascia carrying a religious message – maybe the only hope for many of St Louis’ inhabitants.

‘Blue Train’ has Coltrane, marvellously caught in full flow, superimposed against freight wagons, a woman searching for dropped coals trackside, and a bleak East St Louis backwater, with the album cover sized to the match the side of a wagon. The image evokes Coltrane’s plaintive tones and the clang of the endless freight trains that would have cut across the landscape.

Tracks, Chicago. Copyright David Wild. All Rights Reserved.

‘Tracks, Chicago’ is built around a young, besuited and earnest Archie Shepp reading his acerbic poem, ‘Tracks’, at the Hungry Eye, against Wild’s photos of run-down neighbourhoods and the urban poor. A heavy hit of commentary, which gains an additional aspect on ‘Scag’, on ‘New Thing at Newport’ (Impulse), capturing the full impact of Shepp’s recital of the poem – “There is the stench of rotted blood and dry Philadelphia clay …”. It is curious that Shepp’s poetry is so hard to find in print.

As Coltrane’s drummer Rashied Ali, who was in the group seen by Wild in Detroit, has said, “Those were trying times in the 60s. We had the civil rights thing going on … People were screaming for their rights and wanting to be equal, be free. And naturally, the music reflects the whole period …

The photos of the musicians are striking and imposing records of their dignity and dedication. Elvin Jones, wiped out after recording Coltrane’s monumental breakthrough, ‘Ascension’; Coltrane and Pharaoh Sanders as if lit onstage by glowing embers; Garrison and Jones juxtaposed in montage; the serene poise of Sonny Stitt and Eddie Harris in deep dark tones. Gems.

The chance to see the original prints and photomontages at the Beardsmore Gallery should not be missed. The elegantly produced book is, of course, the perfect gift for the serious jazz aficionado!

‘Jazzpaths, an American Photomomento’, 112pp, hardback with 131 images, is published by Hyphen Press
“Jazzpaths and Other Fragments’ is at Beardsmore Gallery until 10 December, 2011

Categories: miscellaneous

3 replies »

  1. This review makes me wish it was fewer than 3000 miles to the gallery from where I live.
    A correction from the Photo-minutiae Police: let's make that camera a Nikon F; the F2 wasn't introduced until 1971.

  2. Thanks, Patrick – appreciate the positive feedback and the scrutiny – however, on the camera, perhaps in the USA the F2 was an earlier introduction – if I may quote from the book, page 38:

    …I would soon meet Declan [Haun] [who] worked for the Black Star agency and had work in the Museum of Modern Art. We became friends and he encouraged my photographing to go several steps further. He found me a second-hand Nikon F2 body, as well as giving me his Weston light meter, which he didn't need any more, having a perfect sense of light quality.”

    and the website at http://www.beardsmoregallery.com/current-exhibition/:

    “My instrument was a secondhand Nikon F2, and befriended by the late Declan Haun, my amateur efforts became more intense. He insisted I should start with a standard 50mm lens, but I would later use a 135mm telephoto, ideal for those ‘across the streets’ shots.”

    For me, it was rather wonderful to see Archie Shepp last night in London (review to follow) after seeing David Wild's original photos of Shepp and his original photomontage, 'Tracks' (see above), which are also reproduced in the book.

    If you can't get over to London, do check out the website and maybe contact Hyphen Press if the book interests you.

    All best


  3. Patrick – we have clarification! We've now been able to check with the gallery, and the author has confirmed to them that the Nikon F2 reference was an error that he picked up, but after the book had gone to press, and too late to change, so you were correct. Same for the press release/invitation. It'll be changed in the second edition, I am sure!


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