by Art Levy
Updated 2 yearss ago
My family wanted me to be a businessman, and I wanted to play the drums — neither of which happened.
If a photograph moves me, it’s good enough.
I’ve always seen jazz as a metaphor for freedom. Nina Simone, John Coltrane, that was the message they were sending out. It was a message of freedom, and they used music as the conveyor of their anger. Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln did a thing on freedom. It was in the air. Boy, you couldn’t escape it — and you didn’t want to escape it.
My parents were refugees from a shtetl in Ukraine, but they met in Philadelphia. He was a small-time grocer, and she was a stay-at-home mom. They were simple people and lived within a very close community. It was stifling for me, and I had to get out.
I consider myself a visual historian.
It came up in conversation that Thelonious Monk was a Ping-Pong player, and I was also a pretty good Ping-Pong player. We arranged to play. He killed me. I thought I would have an easy time with him because he was heavyset and big. The first game was like 21 to 6 and the second game was about the same.
I was the second son, and in an Orthodox Jewish family everything goes to the first born, so I always felt secondary, so to speak. It was my brother who went to camp. It was my brother who got piano lessons.
The civil rights movement played an important part in how I view life. I was photographing right in the middle of it. I think that helped solidify the fact that I wanted to photograph people, photograph culture.
It’s hard to believe, but I’d walk into a club and Dizzy Gillespie’s there, and I’d wave at him, and he’d wave at me and say, ‘Hey, Herb,’ and we just did our thing. I was talented with the camera, and they were talented with the music. I was just part of the jazz community. The only performer who ever gave me any heartache was Betty Carter, the singer, who, for whatever the reason, wouldn’t let me photograph her.
I think it was right after my bar mitzvah or right before, but I learned about the Holocaust from a newsreel. It shook me up. It’s like when I go to the Florida Holocaust Museum now in St. Petersburg and I have to work to stay calm. It’s amazing what holds onto you after all these years.
You have a smart phone. Hold it up. Click. Thanks. Everyone thinks they’re a photographer today.
1959 seemed to be the year that everything broke loose. A lot of recordings. A lot of clubs. A lot of people making a lot of glorious music — John Coltrane, Nina Simone, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Clifford Jordan and the list just keeps going on and on. They were creating music, not just playing the old tunes in a hipper way. They were creating something very special.
I could kick myself, but I would go to the Village Gate nightclub in Greenwich Village and a block away would be Bob Dylan, just starting out as this crazy kid. But I never put it together that I should go over and photograph him because I was all involved with the jazz people and not the folk people.
There’s very little excitement that I feel from today’s musicians.
I used a 35 millimeter Nikon SP with interchangeable lenses. I used a Hasselblad with interchangeable backs. I still have my Nikon.
You spend most of your day working, and if you can’t stand what you do, then you’ll have a heart attack sooner or later. So do what you love to do — if you can.
I still photograph, just not very much anymore, but I still use film. I don’t shoot digitally.
There’s a photograph I made of Miles Davis. He was in Newport, but he had just finished playing, and he’s standing in the doorway of his trailer. You could see his eyes, very penetrating. He was talking to a fellow photographer, a friend of mine, Herman Leonard, and he was looking at Herman very intently. I just stood back — he didn’t even see me — and I was just snapping away, and I knew even at the time that those were some great photographs.
You should know that I have Parkinson’s disease, so some of my memories have gone away.
You don’t take a photograph. You make a photograph.
For whatever the reason, I’m attracted to Quakerism, but I still feel that I’m a Jew. My wife bought this Star of David I’m wearing because of the anti-Semitism that’s growing all over the world. I had lunch today with a professor at Eckerd, a retired professor, who doesn’t wear a Star of David, although he used to. So I asked him why he took it off. He said, ‘Well, I don’t want to get beaten up.’ So I wear mine.
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