Jazz in Focus: The Photos of Arthur Elgort

Known for his photographs of models in glossy magazines, the photographer reveals another passion in his new book, Jazz

David Sánchez

“I learned something early on,” Arthur Elgort says on the phone from his photography studio in Manhattan. “Jazz musicians, in general, liked pretty girls. If you brought a good-looking girl with you, the jazz musicians would say, ‘Can I take a picture with her? And you’ll send it to me? Oh, good.’”

As it happens, Elgort—an acclaimed lensman for Vogue (in all its many international iterations), Glamour, Mademoiselle, and other couture-minded glossies—has known and worked with a whole lot of good-looking girls over the last five decades. He’s also worked with a whole lot of fashion-mag editors eager to up the hipness quotient of their spreads by borrowing from the iconography of jazz, and in many cases getting actual jazz musicians involved in their shoots. When they want something jazzy, they know who to call: Elgort, who’s been an ardent fan of the music ever since first hearing Sidney Bechet and Louis Armstrong records as a 10-year-old Brooklynite.

Eventually, Elgort’s pictures of musicians with good-looking girls started to mix with pictures of musicians on their own, including memorable shots of sharp-dressed men like George Benson, Ornette Coleman, John McLaughlin, Milt Hinton, and the photographer’s all-time favorite, Dexter Gordon. But no matter whom he was shooting, Elgort kept the same no-nonsense style with which he’d first established his name in the early-’70s British Vogue: preferring outdoor locations to studios and casual snapshots to posed compositions. You can see a generous selection of these photos, spanning more than 30 years, in Elgort’s new book, simply titled Jazz (Damiani), from which the following images—interspersed with exclusive commentary from the author—are taken.

During the ’80s, as his musical proclivities became more generally known, Elgort got hired for a growing number of jazz-related projects. One particular plum was a 1988 Italian Vogue assignment to go on board the S.S. Norway for the Floating Jazz Festival, an all-star cruise run annually for 20 years by promoters Shelley Shier and Hank O’Neal. He quickly found that the cruise-ship environment was ideal for getting great shots of jazz musicians: “They couldn’t get off the boat,” he explains, “so I could have them anytime I wanted—I knew their room numbers.” His photo rolls from this maiden voyage include standout snaps of Illinois Jacquet, Dizzy Gillespie, Sam Rivers, and the ailing but still fabulously photogenic Gordon. Elgort would make two return trips to the Floating Jazz Festival over the next few years, yielding many more noteworthy images.

Now 78, Elgort is still taking pictures of both models and musicians, and his abilities show no sign of flagging; indeed, a meditative 2018 shot of Vijay Iyer is one of the highlights of his book. “I keep on listening to jazz,” he says. “I think I’m the only one who buys CDs now. My son will only listen to vinyl—he has all my old records, and if I show him a CD, he’ll laugh at me!”

Caption for the photo above: David Sánchez, 2000: “I shot this up in Harlem for a men’s issue of Italian Vogue. I just told David, ‘Walk and play.’ The magazine dressed him, but he had to approve of what he was wearing. Luckily, I don’t think I’ve ever run into any problems with people in these kinds of sessions being unhappy about what they were supposed to wear—and if there were problems, they argued with the editors. I try to keep out of those arguments. I take the pictures, I don’t argue. Not worth it. You get a headache.”

Click the buttons below to see more of Elgort’s photos of jazz musicians.