Roy DeCarava: The Sounds He Saw

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

Milt Jackson, 1956 (photo:Roy DeCarava)
Milt Jackson, 1956 (photo:Roy DeCarava)

“We spared no detail, we measured things to the millimeter, we restored things that were out of kilter,” Turner DeCarava recalled of the process leading to the book’s publication. With every viewing, one sinks deeper into what Clytus calls its “dense pictorial grammar of emotion,” a powerful example of which is DeCarava’s famous blurred image of Ben Webster hugging John Coltrane. In a 2017 appreciation for The New York Times Magazine, Geoff Dyer called this “the central photograph in jazz,” wholly different from Herman Leonard’s more celebrated and “perfectly composed” shots. “The tightness of the framing shrinks the differences in age and era, adding to the intimacy of the moment,” Dyer wrote. “Coltrane’s eyes are shut; he seems almost a baby in Webster’s rough, tender embrace. … It may look as if [Webster] is giving Coltrane his blessing, but it’s impossible to tell whether we are witnessing a greeting or a leave-taking.”

DeCarava managed to capture Coltrane and Webster, as Dyer remarks, “in the same way that he would picture any other African-Americans on the street.” This is an important point, amplified by Turner DeCarava: “Roy saw jazz musicians as part of their community, and part of a community of workers. They weren’t fancy people, they were workers just like the coal man who kept the city warm, they did their jobs and applied themselves.” That visual dialogue, between the everyday of the New York street and the transcendence of the bandstand, carries on through nearly every spread of the sound i saw. It may be at its most vivid in an image of Milt Jackson, holding his vibraphone mallets together close to his torso, while across the page a man in a fedora and tweed trench coat is perhaps walking to work, clasping his hands in much the same way.

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.