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Hank O’Neal: Chasing Ghosts

Interview with author and photographer Hank O’Neal about his book The Ghosts of Harlem

Hank O'Neal
Hank O'Neal
Dizzy Gillespie (1990)
Cab Calloway in 1986
Cab Calloway in 1986 (photo: Hank O'Neal)
Andy Kirk

The term “Renaissance Man” hardly does justice to the life and work of Hank O’Neal. Born in Texas, O’Neal served in the U.S. Army, worked for the CIA, ran a record label with the legendary producer John Hammond and another on his own (Chiaroscuro), created and developed the jazz cruise concept, owned a recording studio, produced records, assisted noted artistic photographers, became a prolific photographer himself and finally wrote and compiled numerous books. We may have left something out, but O’Neal’s reputation as a creative polymath has been sufficiently buttressed.

His latest project in print is a massive volume called The Ghosts of Harlem (Vanderbilt University Press), in which O’Neal looks nostalgically at the Harlem jazz scene through the eyes of the musicians who created it. He spoke at length with JT about his life in and around the world of jazz and photography.

You’ve had such a multi-faceted career – as a photographer, record producer, recording engineer, cruise and festival promoter, and writer – I don’t even know where to begin and how to end. What do you say when people ask you what you do for a living?

A little bit of this and a little bit of that. I haven’t had a full-time job since 1976. It’s been everything. As it stands right now, the vast bulk of it is in photography and writing with an occasional musical sideline. I’m starting to post two complete books in a serialization of them on my web site. They’ve already been written. The idea behind that is to start getting it out there, seeing how many hits there are. And then saying to the podunk publisher, this is what you could have.

What was the first piece of jazz writing that you did?

I was a senior in high school. I wrote my senior paper on Dizzy Gillespie.

What grade did you get?

An A-minus or something like that. How lucky am I? Sometime in the late ’80s, I got to show it to him [Dizzy]. He loved it. It had a picture or cartoon of him that I had clipped out of some magazine or newspaper.

How’s it read to you now?

It sucks. When you’re a senior in high school, it all sucks. I didn’t know anything. I don’t know much now, but I know a little more than I did then. When I was thrust into the CIA in 1963, I was supposed to be a regular CIA guy, but something funny happened. I was pulled out of training because somebody had quit in another division. They wanted me to fill this person’s position even though I wasn’t a 45-year old PhD. I had taken African Studies in college and they put me in the office of National Estimates. As a result, that meant from that point on, most of the stuff that I was doing would have an ultimate end as something that was written. The reason I never finished my Master’s was because I was writing my Master’s thesis on South Africa and it turned out that I was sitting in an all-source office with every piece of information I ever could have possibly wanted to know about South Africa. I was writing national intelligence estimates on South Africa. So I never finished the thesis.

In terms of the first jazz stuff, the first thing that turned out to be a book was the Eddie Condon book. It was called the Eddie Condon Scrapbook of Jazz. Eddie was one of the first people I got to know in New York City. His wife had kept all this stuff under the bed in shirtboxes. There were just thousands of pictures and photographs and articles and we turned it into a scrapbook. That was the first one.

From there I went on with the same publisher to my first big photography book, called A Vision Shared, also from St. Martin’s Press. It was a history of the Farm Security Administration in the 1930s and all the photographers who worked for that. It was Walker Evans, Russell Lee, Dorothea Lange and all those people. It turned out very well because I got to work with all the photographers and/or their widows or widowers. Ben Shahn and Dorothea Lange were dead by then but I got to work with everyone else. Bernarda Bryson Shahn [Ben Shahn’s widow] wrote the introduction to my book and Paul Taylor, Dorothea Lange’s husband, wrote the conclusion. That started a precedent to always have an interesting person do the foreword if you possibly could. In the case of the Condon book, we used John Steinbeck, but he didn’t really do it for that book. It was a long letter that Steinbeck had written once. The most recent one has Charles Rangel doing it and it’s rather charming.

Well, he represents Harlem, literally.

I don’t know him very well, but one of my closest pals was his high school pal. Arthur Barnes just picked up the phone and told him, “Charlie, just write this thing.” Arthur is now the chairman of the Jazz Museum of Harlem.

Your latest book The Ghosts of Harlem includes archival photos, your photos and your interviews with musicians associated with the Harlem jazz scene. You’ve always worked with jazz musicians, as an engineer, producer and promoter. When did you start recording interviews with them?

My friend Les Pockell was my editor for my earliest books with St. Martin’s. I was introduced to him by Michael Brooks. In the early ’80s, Les transferred from St. Martin’s to Doubleday and around 1985 he called and he said, “Hank I’m looking for an interesting book project so let’s have lunch and see what we can figure out.”

Just about that time I had done a trip to Harlem with John Hammond. It was John’s last time to go to Harlem. We talked about a lot of things and met a lot of people. I thought about a lot of things. I decided it would be fun to do a book about why everybody left and where did they go. It was just that amorphous. We had gone to see a band play in the basement of Small’s Paradise. What you have to realize is that in 1985, this was the end of the world [as far as jazz in Harlem]. There was no music uptown. Nothing. I remember we came out of the club that night and John’s looking at a building and he’s looking all sad. And I said, “What’s wrong?” He said, “That’s where I first heard Billie.”

I put together a big long list of about 120 names with phone numbers of people I knew or worked with. I took it to lunch with Les and told him I wanted to do a book talking with a number of these people. And that I wanted to call the book The Ghosts of Harlem, because everybody had just vanished like ghosts. They’d all gone away. Nobody lived uptown. I could tell by the phone numbers and the addresses. He said that was a good idea and as a matter of fact he could sell it on the title and list alone, which is exactly what he did.

Doubleday gave me a nice advance. I started to work and started interviewing people. About a year and a half into it, I got a call from Les. He said, “I have good news and I have bad news.” I said, “What’s up, Les?” He said, “I’ve been made the head of one of the companies we own in Japan and I have to go to Japan to run that company.” Which was thrilling for him because his wife was Japanese and he thought it would be a lot of fun. “The bad news is,” he said, “that nobody here understands your book and we don’t know what to do with it.” I said, “Well, let me make one phone call.” And that one phone call was to Jackie Onassis, who was the only other person at Doubleday I knew. She had been the editor on my Berenice Abbott book in 1980. She said, “I’d like to, but I have to do a Michael Jackson book right now.” So I was out of luck. The funny thing is Doubleday never got in touch. They never asked for the advance back. They never asked for anything. They just vanished.

Fast forward to 1992 and I’m doing this book with Filipacchi [French publisher] about the Norman Granz funky blues date, the one that had Charlie Parker, Benny Carter and Johnny Hodges. It only came out in France. I was working with Nicolas Hugnet, a really good guy. We were wrapping up the Charlie Parker book and he sees a photograph leaning against the wall of Jonah Jones. He said, “What’s that?” I told him the story about The Ghosts of Harlem. He said, “Well, that sounds like a great project. We’ll take it under the same terms as we did the Charlie Parker book.” I said OK. I finished up forty or so interviews and we put the book out in print in France in 1996. It was very successful, well-designed. Eventually, it fell out of print. They tried to sell the Parker book, they tried to sell the Harlem book here in the United States, but they had done such a spectacular job that they wanted too much money. It was so beautifully designed and nobody would pay for it. We’re cheap that way in the U.S.

About 2004, I was up visiting Ahmet Ertegun [late Atlantic Records founder] at his house and we’re talking. He had a copy of the book [the French edition]. He said, “Hank, why didn’t you ever put this out in the United States?” I told him the story about how they couldn’t sell it and he said, “Well, this book ought to be out in the United States.” I said, “Of course it should, but the French have the copyright.” He said, “Just a moment.” He called his assistant and got Daniel Filipacchi [noted publisher] on the phone and he said, “You have this book. I know you’ve sold the company and everything, but you’ve got the contacts. Hank needs to put the book out in the United States. Give him his copyright back.” It took about a month, but I got the paperwork. Then I was able to show it to someone else.

David Berger had just done his book [on Milt Hinton] with Vanderbilt Press and he said I should show it to Michael Ames there. Michael thought it was terrific and that was that. That was the logistics of it. I updated it substantially from 1996, because up to 1996 not a single person that I’d interviewed thought that Harlem would ever come back. And by 2007 when this thing was all handed off to Vanderbilt, it had. And there were people playing uptown and there were new clubs coming in. The Apollo had been modernized. I did an additional here and now and I added one interview, with Billy Taylor, and that was that. If there was any regret about it, it’s that my first list was about 120 people long. As it is, 42 interviews take 485 pages and that means that had I been able to do all the people I wanted to it would have been too long or it would have been in multiple volumes.

It’s not just the interviews. It’s a photo book as well.

Yes, of the 42 portraits, probably 36 or 37 were with the big camera. Largely in their homes or a park next to their home. Eddie Durham wanted to be photographed at a friend’s house up on 158th Street and George Kelly wanted to be photographed at his girlfriend’s house.

What is that big camera that you used?

It’s a 5 X 7 Deardorff with a 4 X 5 reducing back. My enlarger here will only go up to 4 X 5. In the olden days when I had access to Berenice Abbott’s 8 X 10 enlarger, I could do anything. But I don’t have the money for that or the space.

That big camera was part of your interaction with the musicians.

Of course it was, because these guys were old enough to remember doing formal portraits. Also, it was a great icebreaker, because I looked like such a doofus doing it. Putting the blanket over my head and then taking it off, my hair, or what hair I had left, would look all silly and a mess. It’s always been a good icebreaker, because nobody does it that way. Everybody has a 35 millimeter on a power drive these days.

How long did it take to do all those interviews?

They were done in four different periods. They were done leading up to when Doubleday crashed. Then two or three were done in the early 90s. And then a series of six or seven were done for the French edition. And then one with Billy Taylor for the U.S. edition. That’s the way it worked.

You did this book largely as oral history. Did you have a strong feeling that the story had to be told in the words of the musicians?

Oh, it had to be. Nothing bores me more than somebody who wasn’t there trying to reconstruct it. Who knows? Maybe everything they say isn’t 100% true.

There was some contradictory testimony.

That always happens. Not only that, the musicians did it just for fun. They love to play with these guys. They’d love to take Leonard Feather and fib to him. I did that with Berenice Abbott on some things. We made up a photographer.

Not Rollo Phlecks, your alias, whose photos have appeared in JT?

No, that was named after the camera. There was a reason for that. I just had become so bored with seeing Bob Thiele’s name in 43 different places on the back of a record. It seemed silly because here was a guy who made such really really good stuff, but the ego was so astounding that he had to put his picture all over. I just made up names.

Many of the artists interviewed are not household names.

The whole idea was that someone like Dizzy Gillespie has told his story 5,829 times, but Eddie Durham hasn’t. And Ovie Alston or Greely Walton. My feeling was that you’d get a better story out of the third trumpet player than you might get out of the leader of the band, because they had pat answers. They’d been interviewed 5,000 times. Somebody like Sammy Lowe who nobody had ever gone to talk to had a spectacularly good career in music, but sort of around the fringes jazz, because he went into pop and R&B. In his music room, you see the pictures of Nina Simone and James Brown. You don’t see the picture of Charlie Parker.

A lot of these guys went in different directions. I didn’t get the interview with Al Sears. I have pictures of him, but he had laryngitis that day. He was dead shortly thereafter. Milt Jackson was supposed to be in it. We took all the pictures and then Milt said, “No, Hank, I can’t talk about this because I just signed a contract with Warner Brothers and they have my life story and I’m not allowed to do any of this.” I said, “When you get the book done, call me and we’ll do it.” Now, it’s 2010 and Sandy [Jackson, Milt’s widow] is still trying to get it [the book] done. There were a number of cases where the picture existed, but the interview didn’t, because of time constraints or whatever. I interacted probably 73 times with Jay McShann, but because of the timing, I never got Jay to talk.

Was there anybody who simply said no?

One of them was Bill Doggett, who I wanted to talk to about organ trios in Harlem. He was sick and didn’t want to. Then there was Beverly Peer who was at that time playing with Bobby Short. And a third one, who is a very close friend and whom I have a lot of portraits of, is Joe Wilder. There were some that got away. But if I’d gotten all of them, then that would have made the book 600 pages!

It’s already a substantial book.

There’s a show up right now at the Jazz Museum of Harlem, since September. It’s on permanent exhibition there. Loren Schoenberg organized it. I let him pick out what he thought were the best.

Was there any one interview that stood out for you?

The one that I was most happy to get was Sy Oliver, because Sy wouldn’t talk to anybody. He was a good guy. Early on Milt Hinton told me that I was going to run into a number of people who he described as “white-shy.” He told me if I ever got into a pickle, to call him and he’ll tell them I’m OK.

There’s a section towards the back of the book called “The Survivors.” This was a band I put together for Milt where everybody had to be 100 years old of something. It was Milt, Doc Cheatham, Buddy Tate, Al Casey, Cab Calloway. After the recording was over, I had this thing that I used to put on the CD called “Jazz Speak,” which I liked a lot. I asked Cab, Milt, Doc and Eddie Barefield to go into a room and just talk about the Calloway band in 1937 or whatever. Rudy Van Gelder just left the tape running. Pretty soon, they not only forgot that the tape was going, but that “whitey” was in the other room. They really said the way it was. And, after the fact, I thought that would be a good thing to put in the book. I also included part of that conversation in the CD that’s on the inside back cover.

In general, you had such a close relationship with the musicians.

Yes, but there are only three that are still alive.

Was there anything that you didn’t put in for whatever reason?

The only things I didn’t put in were things that would reflect negatively on the person who was saying it. I didn’t care if it reflected badly on the music business or whatever. Also, what I had to do with some people was to reassemble everything into a sequence that added up. One thing that came out of this and it’s something that I’ve honestly believed from the ’70s on is that generally speaking the jazz musicians that I’ve been fortunate enough to work with are all really decent people who are not hateful or don’t do nasty things. I prefer to deal with folks that are straight-ahead and nice people. And everybody in this book, they’re nice people. They were easy to interact with. They were giving. They were generous. I’m very fortunate that way. I don’t have any unhappy stories. Other than that someone gets old and sick or old and dies.

In the beginning of the book, you present a veritable visual history of the Harlem jazz scene. Was it difficult to research all that lost history?

Ever since the Eddie Condon book, I’ve had a standing working relationship with a pal named Frank Driggs, who has a bunch of pictures. If I wanted to use a picture, like of the inside of Small’s Paradise or something like that, he would let me use whatever I wanted to use. And when I accumulated pictures, I would let him make copies for his files. So we just traded back and forth. Frank was very helpful on the Condon book and the Harlem book and a lot of smaller projects in between.

Sometime in the late ’60s, CBS did a three-record set that was called The Sound of Harlem. They had also done The Sound of Chicago and The Sound of New Orleans. It had a wonderful booklet that listed all of the names of the clubs uptown and what their addresses were. I was able to use that book to get the addresses so that I could go back and find out where Wells was or whatever. I was able to have a good starting point. I made Xeroxes of that booklet and I stapled it together and I put pages in between so I could figure out what I had and hadn’t done. I wound up going back and forth on all the streets of Harlem, finding what things look liked now. It was a photographic excursion as well as an intellectual excursion.

One of your conclusions is that integration was one of the major causes of the collapse of the Harlem music scene.

That was Buddy Tate’s thesis.

Do you believe that to be true?

If that’s what they think happened, then that’s what happened, because they were the ones living it. It was easier to get to 52nd Street or the Village then it was to go to 137th Street. People tend to do what’s easiest. If the really good players came downtown, then that’s where people would go and go door to door to door. Once upon a time, you could go door to door to door on Jungle Alley, but that was about the only place where you could walk down one street and go to lots of places at the same time. I think it was a matter of convenience. And what was easiest. When people came downtown it was easier to do something else. The musicians seem fairly emphatic about this.

The other angle is that drugs came in. I remember Vi Tate telling me that, “There were people who weren’t supposed to be there and we had a community and we couldn’t sit out on our front stoop any more.” Musicians would tell me they would go back after not having been there for a long time and they would feel terrible and cry. That’s too bad.

We’re trying to build a jazz museum on 125th Street, but it’s a hard thing to do right now, because there are other issues with the economy.

What books of oral history do you most admire or may have influenced you?

The first one that I would have been aware of was Nat’s book-Hear Me Talkin’ to Ya’– and some of the early things that Sam Charters did, but these books were done without pictures. What’s normally been the case with the books that I’ve done is that there has been no template. If you look at the Charlie Parker book, how can you have a template for that? I got all the living people to comment on the photographs. Oscar Peterson, Barney Kessel, Benny Carter, J.C. Heard all talked about the pictures. There is no template for that.

On The Vision Shared book, there was certainly no template for that, because most people who go into a project like that, their ego is so great, big and fat, they want to pick out the pictures. With that FSA book I wanted the people who took them to pick them out because they knew what was good, a whole lot better than I did.

What writers about jazz do you enjoy or respect?

The literature of jazz is often written on the back of cocktail napkins. The oldest one that I thought really knew how to spell, as opposed to somebody who just got facts, was Otis Ferguson, from the ’30s. Unfortunately, he was blown up in World War II so he didn’t get to do much more. In more recent days, Whitney Balliett really knew how to spell. We disagreed on some of the things he said, not all that much, but he really said them well. I always paid attention to Nat [Hentoff]. George Avakian was somebody who could do it well, but he didn’t do it much because he was restricted pretty much to liner notes because of his job at Columbia. Even Paul Bacon could turn a nice phrase. Today, I read Gary Giddins’ stuff and I read Nat’s stuff. The guy who I tend to see a lot of because of his JazzWax blog is Marc Myers.

I remember as a kid reading liner notes from this guy and thinking, wow, this is great. That was George Frazier. He was spectacular. I remember that he had written something about Glenn Miller, of all people, that I thought was terrific. And Dan Morgenstern, who has real authority among all the writers and researchers

You’ve been working on other interview projects as well.

I have done a book called The Jazz Pianists. I have taken 100 piano players whom I’ve worked with and whom I’ve also managed to photograph. There are about forty people that I didn’t get to photograph, but I’ve picked the hundred that I did. I’ve written stories about them, the relationship to the photograph and so forth. The oldest one is Eubie Blake and the youngest one is Hiromi and everybody in between. I would say in about 65 of the 100, I have sequences of their hands in action, in addition to the other photographs.

Then there’s another book that I call The Golden Age of Jazz which is roughly 250 pictures, ranging from my very earliest one, which was taken in Washington, D.C., of Mississippi John Hurt at the Ontario Place Coffeehouse in 1964 all the way up to something next week. These are all color pictures that jump out at you. It’s about 200 different people and 50 groups.

Then the third book is something my book agent wants that’s called Interactions, and that’s only partly musical. The first post on that was Jackie Onassis. The next one is on Stevie Ray Vaughan and John Hammond. Most recent post was on Raphael Soyer and Saul Bellow.

The complicated project for me is The Lower East Side Project, which I started in 1986. That’s right now at 7,600 Kodachromes. That’s a big major project.

Originally Published