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May 2001

Francis Wolff
Blue Note Jazz Photography of Francis Wolff

The friendship between two German teenagers in the 1920s led to the founding of one of the most important and successful jazz record companies in the world: Blue Note Records. It also resulted in the creation of a superb portfolio of photographs of many great musicians.

In 1924, Francis Wolff met Alfred Lion, who lived in the same neighborhood in Berlin, and discovered a mutual passion for jazz. Lion was so taken with the music, that he moved to New York City in 1928 to be at the jazz center of the world. Francis (or Frank) remained in Berlin, where he mastered the art of photography. When Alfred created Blue Note Records in 1939, he sent for Frank, but Frank chose to stay in Berlin despite the fact that, as a Jew, his life was at great risk. However, by the end of ’39 Wolff caught the last unrestricted boat out of Germany. He found a job as a photographer’s assistant in New York and he and Lion kept the record company going while both maintained their “day jobs.” Recording stopped when Lion was drafted in 1941. Then, with his discharge in ’43, Blue Note became a full-time business for these dedicated friends.

Their recordings were in the mainstream and swing style in the beginning. However, the music was undergoing significant changes with the advent of bebop in the early ’40s. They stopped recording again in 1946 so they could listen to new musicians and consider where jazz was heading. Ike Quebec, their star tenor sax performer, welcomed the bop innovations and introduced the partners to the music of pianists Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell. A year later the label was releasing new, beautifully crafted, modern records, including the debuts of Monk, Tadd Dameron, James Moody, Art Blakey and so many more.

Alfred took care of the music and Frank ran the business. This left Frank free at recording sessions to photograph. For two decades he documented all the historic sessions in the dimly lit sound studios. Shooting with a medium format Rollieflex, Frank had to use a handheld flash extended at arm’s length to get just the proper lighting that suited his vision. The pictures proved to be a boon when long-playing records were developed because now there were LP jackets to be decorated for marketing. In 1956, Frank Wolff’s superb prints became the Blue Note trademark as master graphic designer Reid Miles incorporated them into album cover designs. When Alfred Lion retired in 1967, Frank assumed the role of record producer and his photographic activity ceased. He ran Blue Note until he died of a heart attack following surgery in 1971.

Despite the large number of LP releases, the prints reproduced on the jackets were only a small fraction of the Wolff archive. Mosaic Records acquired the collection from Lion and began to market prints and reproductions. Then came the publication of a magnificent oversized hardcover book entitled The Blue Note Years...The Jazz Photography of Francis Wolff that Rizzoli produced with great care. Now here is a second volume published by Universe, a branch of Rizzoli.

Blue Note Jazz Photography of Francis Wolff is of smaller format and has a soft cover, but it still incorporates the same superb design and reproduction on fine quality paper as its predecessor. This gorgeous volume presents more remarkable examples of the Wolff legacy. Not only are there many black and white prints never published before, we also see Wolff’s excellent use of color. Wolff was not an available-light photographer, but he developed the use of auxiliary lighting that simulated the essential character of a jazz club’s spotlit atmosphere. What is marvelous here is that you can observe the evolution to perfection in his style.

We are treated to many pictures from the years of traditional jazz and early bebop where distracting backgrounds and flash-thrown shadows are a bit of a problem. With time, however, he arrived at his ultimate goal, where figures are suspended in deep black—in limbo, as cinema and video photographers would call it. Furthermore, because his electronic flash source is much more intense than club spots, the subjects are completely in focus since depth-of-field is large. But even more important than his superb use of state-of-the-art lighting was his ability to be “sufficiently unobtrusive” while using such generically obtrusive techniques. As a consequence, he was almost invariably able to capture a distinctly natural image of the musicians engaged in their craft. This, of course, is the goal of all jazz photographers; something that is much easier physically when using only existing light, but at the expense of a very narrow range of focus.

Frank Wolff was a master at getting just the right balance within his style. In this collection, as with the first, one is at a loss to pick favorites. The pictures are a rich documentary, at the highest level of artistic creativity, of a grand and full lifetime in jazz.

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