Roy DeCarava: The Sounds He Saw

The jazz photographer's masterwork has been unveiled at last, nearly 60 years after it was created

Tony Scott, 1956 (photo: Roy DeCarava)
Tony Scott, 1956 (photo: Roy DeCarava)

Much like a lost jazz recording, master photographer Roy DeCarava’s one-of-a-kind fine art book the sound i saw: improvisations on a jazz theme sat unpublished for decades. It existed solely as a maquette—essentially a mockup or prototype, crafted painstakingly by hand in 1960, shut inside a worn leather case and left to languish in a closet after multiple rejections from publishers. But thanks to the tireless efforts of DeCarava’s widow, the art historian Sherry Turner DeCarava, the sound i saw is finally available in a majestic bound volume from First Print Press and David Zwirner Books, just in time for what would have been DeCarava’s 100th birthday.

DeCarava (pronounced dee-kuh-RAH-vah) got his start in the late 1940s and developed an aesthetic of his own, with “infinite silver tonalities” and “gorgeous grays” that went beyond the reductive term black-and-white, as Turner DeCarava writes in a new essay at the back of the sound i saw. (One of DeCarava’s most famous images, however—the cover of Miles Davis and Gil Evans’ Porgy and Bess—is in color.) His work can be suggestively out of focus, abstract in its way, even as it depicts human subjects as concrete as Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Horace Silver, Quincy Jones, Thelonious Monk, Elvin Jones, Miles Davis, Art Blakey, and Ornette Coleman, among others.

There are stark New York street scenes as well: sidewalks, subway stations, parks, decrepit buildings, anonymous workers or couples or children living their lives in DeCarava’s native Harlem. And snaking throughout the sound I saw’s pages, where one might expect captions, is an impressionistic prose poem by DeCarava himself, lending a sense of narrative motion and establishing what scholar Radiclani Clytus, in another essay for the book, calls a “taut equilibrium” with the photographs.

David R. Adler

David R. Adler writes about jazz and assorted topics. His work has appeared in JazzTimes, NPR Music, WBGO.org, The Philadelphia InquirerThe Village Voice, DownBeat, Time Out New York, and many other publications. From 2010-2017 he taught jazz history at the Aaron Copland School of Music (Queens College-CUNY). In summer 2017, after 30 years in New York (apart from two in Philadelphia), David relocated with his family to Athens, Georgia. There he continues to write about music and perform solo as a guitarist/vocalist.