Book Review: Bob Willoughby – Jazz: Body and Soul

Bob Willoughby – Jazz: Body and Soul
(Evans Mitchell Books . £29.95. Book Review by Chris Parker)

With William Claxton and Ray Avery, photographer Bob Willoughby helped define that ever-popular (if slightly misleadingly named) subgenre ‘cool’ or ‘West Coast’ jazz. He did this by searching out and photographing, in their natural environment (clubs and recording studios), the musicians whose playing inspired him as he worked in his darkroom. Of course, nowadays, Willoughby is chiefly remembered as a photographer of Hollywood stars such as Audrey Hepburn and Judy Garland (his Guardian obituary says he ‘defined the youthful glamour of the 1950s’), but it is clear, from both the photographs in this beautifully produced book and the personal reminiscences that accompany them, that his first love was jazz and the people who produced it.

As Dave Brubeck states, in an insightful Foreword, Willoughby ‘not only had a good eye, he had a keen ear, and seemed to know when to snap at an inspired moment’. Accordingly, Jazz: Body and Soul is not only sumptuously supplied with intimate, revealing portraits of everyone from Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong to Coleman Hawkins, Dizzy Gillespie and Gerry Mulligan, but also contains some wonderfully honest and unpretentious listener-reactionsto the music they created. Hawkins, for instance, is described thus: ‘[his] breathy syrup of tone took classic songs to another realm’; Billy Eckstine was ‘a singer [who] really sang a song, without all the shouting and yodeling that passes for music today’; Frank Sinatra’s ‘public persona was relaxed, [but] no one really knew the concentrated effort he put in to achieve that image’.

Willoughby is also enough of an unashamed fan to be able to put himself in the shoes of audiences (his sequence of shots captured at a Big Jay McNeely concert in 1951, of both the saxophonist and the reaction to his climactic playing, is deservedly granted an entire section in the book; Willoughby comments: ‘you could taste the energy in that air’), and – characteristically – honest enough to admit the odd failure, either to connect on a personal level with a musician (Ellis Marsalis) or to appreciate their music (the MJQ in 1992 are ‘a big disappointment … painful listening. The only time they ever got off the ground was when Milt Jackson gave the patient the “kiss of life” with his enchanted vibraphone.’)

Packed with superb photographs, both familiar (Chet Baker playing his trumpet straight down at the floor in Los Angeles, 1954; Dave Brubeck caught at The Haig in 1952) and less so (Paul Desmond listening to a playback at a 1954 LA recording session; an audience member onstage with Cal Tjader at the Blackhawk, San Francisco, in 1957), this is both a fascinating and valuable record of a vanished era, and a tribute to the humanity, professionalism and skill of a gifted photographic artist.


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