Roy DeCarava: The Sounds He Saw

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

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

In another photo, a young Jackie McLean stands with his alto, his gaze fixed dead ahead in concentration, with trumpeter Bill Hardman next to him in the midst of a solo. There are also rare images from Duke Ellington’s historic Newport set in 1956, including pictures of the dancing blonde woman who galvanized the crowd during Paul Gonsalves’ famous tenor solo on “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue.” In Don Hunstein’s photos that appear in the 1999 reissue of Ellington at Newport, we see the woman in three crisp and clear frames. DeCarava shoots her from four different angles, each progressively hazier until she becomes like an apparition in the last two tight closeups, arms raised over her head in frenzied motion.

The fact that DeCarava never worked with flash, but only with available light, led some to conclude that he had a dark style. “Not true,” Turner DeCarava countered. “The places where musicians played were generally dark, and Roy did not fight with this. He accepted the conditions that the musicians played in, which is emblematic of the music—it has a way of embracing all the daily issues that beset people and making art out of a rather simple and homemade environment.”

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.