Roy DeCarava: The Sounds He Saw

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

Horn Section Newport 1956_Roy DeCarava
Horn Section, Newport, 1956 (photo: Roy DeCarava)

This play of darkness and light in the sound i saw can be riveting, as in a photo of two male dancers, visible only in silhouette, facing each other about 10 feet apart and making contorted jitterbug motions. Behind them, washes of light give a sense of dimension to the long but fairly narrow dancefloor. DeCarava, about 10 feet away, seems to photograph the dancers from slightly above; he might have been standing on a riser or stage, giving the whole mysterious scene an airy lift.

Turner DeCarava adds that “Roy was very sensitive to female jazz musicians,” noting the presence in the book of pianist, composer, and arranger Mary Lou Williams, bassist Edna Smith, and blues singer Maude Mills, in addition to the marvelous shots of Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Mahalia Jackson, and Lena Horne (in a jocular buddy moment with Count Basie). “Roy was interested in women as carriers of the jazz tradition, and that was a very early statement to make. He made beautiful choices in his life—he valued people, and he was so acute in his capacity to listen on many levels. He was there when people exchanged a luminous quality of interaction, where the energy is so beautiful it turns to light.”

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.