A woman’s perspective: Stephanie Myers

In honor of Women’s History Month, its time to return to our occasional dialogue with women jazz journalists and their challenges. New York-based photojournalist Stephanie Myers is the latest to join our dialogue with women jazz journalists on their career and the various gender challenges they may face as they develop their craft.

Please talk about your writing affiliations and any books or other projects you’re working on currently that you’d like to mention.

Currently, I am working on a jazz book, Inside the Note. This is a large-scale body of work that photographically documents African American Jazz artists over a period of approximately thirty years. Many of these images were taken at venues in Europe, including Nice, France; Gratz, Austria; and Bassano del Grappa, Italy. And, of course a lot of images were taken in New York City at the Village Vanguard, Sweet Basil, Bradleys’ and the Blue Note. Included in this book are such Jazz artists as Benny Waters, Lionel Hampton, Milt Jackson, Miles Davis, Jimmy Owens, Elvin Jones, Roy Haynes, Nat Adderley, Illinois Jacquet, Frank Wess, Al Grey, Sun Ra, Don Cherry, Phineas Newborn, Gerald Wilson, Regina Carter, and many, many others.
Sir Roland Hanna. 2000. Savannah, GA Concert (c) 2000 Stephanie Myers

What has been your experience photographing jazz music in general?

In general, one of the most treasured experiences and greatest rewards of my life has been to photograph Jazz artists. The musicians have always been accessible and kind in allowing me to photograph them.

The most precious and gratifying reward of my career as a photographer has been to meet and get to know many of the musicians whom I’ve photographed. I must give special thanks to Richard Davis because he is the primary reason that I started to photograph Jazz musicians and is truly the person who opened so many doors for me in the beginning of this body of work. In January 1984, I went to Sweet Basil. It was a club that I frequented, even before it was a Jazz Club. That night I decided to go because I wanted to hear some Jazz music. I had been thinking about starting a new series of work.

Anyhow, Richard’s group was playing. His group at that time included Sir Roland Hanna, Freddie Waits, Hannibal Peterson, and Ricky Ford. The music was exciting, exhilarating, in fact. Something clicked both musically and visually for me. Richard, Freddie, and Hannibal were a photographer’s dream team, and the lighting was low and moody which is exactly what I like for my Jazz images. Also, many jazz musicians have an idiosyncratic manner in which they move. Freddie and Hannibal certainly did. It was a ‘click! click!’ moment! Right then and there, I decided that I wanted to photograph a Jazz series. When the set was over, I introduced myself to Richard and asked if I could photograph the group during the week. He said ‘yes,’ and I went back every night!

Later that week, Richard told me about a festival in Nice, France, called Grande Parade du Jazz and suggested that I contact Lois Kuhlman to find out more. She was a wonderful human being with whom I became good friends. She worked for George Wein and said she’d ask George if I could have a press pass. George agreed, and for the next five or six years I attended the Festival with fabulous accessibility to the groups and individuals who played. However, it was through Richard that I first met the Jazz musicians with whom he played that summer in Nice (1984). It was the J.J. Johnson All-Star Sextet. The members were Nat Adderley, Harold Land, Cedar Walton, Richard, and Roy McCurdy. I already knew Cedar from Boomers, a Jazz club on Bleecker Street in the West Village, but I didn’t know J.J., Nat, Harold, or Roy. J. J. was a very special human being. He was such an elegant and gracious person. I didn’t see him often, but I did see Nat a lot at Sweet Basil. He was very funny and so soulful.

I also met their fabulous wives, Viv and Ann, with whom I spent some afternoons shopping. At night, we’d sit together for dinner between sets. Most of the time, J. J. and Nat would join us. The conversations were always lively and interesting. That year, Richard also introduced me to Dizzy, Sweets [Edison], Buddy Tate, and Al Grey, among many other musicians who played the Festival that year. What a beginning!
Al Grey. 1984. Grande Parade du Jazz (c) 1984 Stephanie Myers

What was it about photographing musicians that attracted you to this pursuit initially?

The Blues and Jazz music were a big part of my parent’s lives. My Dad loved to play his old Bessie Smith 78s, and he’d enthusiastically encourage my siblings and me to listen with him. My parents also listened to a lot of Duke and went to his concerts whenever they could. Over the years, they got to know quite a few of the members of Duke’s Band, including Duke. Recently, I looked at their Bessie Smith 78s and discovered that they really belonged to my Mom when she was in college. I still have quite a few of them, including Billie singing Strange Fruit, and Paul Robeson singing King Joe’s Blues along with some old Charlie Shavers.

Because of my early experience listening to the Blues and Jazz, it felt natural to me to be inspired to begin a Jazz series of photographs that night at Sweet Basil.

Would you describe your experiences photographing jazz music as overall positive, and if so why or why not?

My overall experience of photographing Jazz artists has been extraordinarily positive. First and foremost, I have made some wonderful friends over the years. Richard and I have been friends for almost 30 years now. I was good friends with Roland and Freddie. Sweets and I were close friends. Whenever he came to New York, we’d get together for lunch or dinner or often go hear some music. He particularly liked to go to Bradley’s. Richard always said to me: “If you can sit next to anyone in the room, sit next to Sweets if he’s there!” Why? Because Sweets had some of the best stories! Well, I got to sit next to him a lot, and yes, he had some great stories! Between Sweets and Buddy, I heard a lot of stories about Billie, in particular. Sweets and Billie were very close. Over the years, I’ve heard some fabulous music. There were some very special nights at Bradley’s when Kenny Barron, John Hicks, or Tommy Flanagan performed. There wouldn’t be a sound in the room … just those masters playing piano. Nights at The Vanguard when Elvin[Jones] played were pure magic.

I think one of the challenges for photographers today is that it’s more difficult to take photos in clubs. The clubs have tightened up the rules. When I was most actively photographing Jazz musicians, the clubs were pretty loose. Max Gordon was totally cool with photographers shooting pictures as were Phyllis, Mel, and Horst at Sweet Basil.

Elvin Jones. 1997. The Blue Note, NYC (c) 1997 Stephanie Myers

Women occupy an interesting place in the jazz pantheon; on the one hand women instrumentalists are in the distinct minority, at least as far as prominence, and on the other hand women absolutely dominate the ranks of jazz singers. What’s your sense of that imbalance?

My sense is that it is simply a reflection of the inequalities that continue that exist for women in all aspects of our culture.

To apply this to photography: Photographers who are women are definitely in the minority and underrepresented. Women are underrepresented in all art disciplines. Women are underrepresented in the corporate world. Women are underrepresented in the sciences. Women are underrepresented in government. Is it perhaps because we are not encouraged in the same way that men are? It’s much more complicated and really reflects the institutionalized sexism that exists. Certainly, I was encouraged to pursue my art by my parents from the time I was quite young. I was also encouraged by mentors and other photographers whom I knew, most of whom were men. The challenge for me has never been about taking the images. The challenge has been the business aspects of the photography world. In that world, men dominate. Is it frustrating? Yes. Is it going to change any time soon? Highly unlikely! I did think that by now, there would be a greater push to consider women for exhibitions, but mostly, it’s a male dominated world. I have not seen a one-person Jazz exhibition by a woman at any gallery or museum in New York City. It’s time.

Would you describe yourself as a jazz music photographer and why or why not?

NO, I do not label myself as a jazz music photographer. I am a photographer. In the many years I have been a photographer, I have chosen to photograph a variety of different subjects. Jazz is one subject, and I have stayed with it for 30 years. I also have a Streetscape Series that I began many, many years ago. I am particularly interested in how walls change over time with graffiti, peeling paint, disintegrating posters and flyers, chunks of cement falling off and the resulting images the combination of these elements create. It also interests me to return to wall surfaces I’ve photographed to see how they’ve changed. One of my favorite places for wall surfaces is Paris. Another theme that interests me is isolation which is reflected in much of my street photography so to call myself a Jazz music photographer would not be accurate at all.

It’s been suggested that one of the real keys to solving the critical jazz audience development issue is that those who present the music must find creative ways to attract more women to their audiences; some wisdom suggesting that where more women go, men will follow. Is this an apt characterization of the jazz audience conundrum, and if so are there elements you might suggest to those who present jazz as to better attracting women audience members?

It has been my experience through the years that there is always a good representation of women present at any club, concert, or Jazz Festival that I’ve attended through the years, especially in Europe.

The issue is to attract audiences. Period! It’s the same old story. When there’s a pop group, hip hop group, or R&B group, there’s a line around the block of women and men. Clubs and concert venues attract women and men when the Jazz presenters book exciting Jazz artists who have chops and experience.

Clearly photographing music, and particularly photographing jazz, could well be characterized as “a man’s world.” Do you feel like that’s due more to the nature of the music or to some form(s) of overt exclusion from “the boy’s club”?

No, I do not think it’s due to the nature of the music. Photographing Jazz artists was never an issue for me. I had access to the musicians, and they were, for the most part, always kind and generous. The act of shooting photographs itself is not the issue. The business of Jazz is the issue.

Have you ever found it more difficult to pursue photographing music due to gender issues? If so please detail some of your photographing experiences that may have been fairly or unfairly colored by gender.

Yes, as I said before, the business of the Jazz music world is not fair. Having said that, a long time ago, there was a gallery on lower Broadway called the Samuel Hardison Gallery. Sam represented Robert Mapplethorpe, Lynn Davis, and Joel Peter Witkin, among others. I used to go to his gallery to see exhibitions, and we became friendly. He suggested to me that I just keep moving forward. He said: “Take the photographs that you want to take, build your portfolio with whatever subject or whomever you want to photograph, and print archivally.” I took his suggestion. I didn’t and don’t spend time dwelling on the inequalities that have been and still are present in every aspect of the art world. My issue is about the opportunity to exhibit. That challenge was there 40 years ago. It continues today. The irony of all of this is that women who are in positions to make exhibition decisions can be just as unfair. The reality is that being a photographer (female or male) is not easy for most of us.

Through the years, I’ve had some wonderful mentors and friends who were very generous to me with their time. I had the great honor to know Aaron Siskind who was very generous with his support and suggestions. My most important mentor was Vincent Dillard, a photographer, who guided me in my early years. He edited my work on a regular basis and taught me how to print. He also taught me to make sure wherever I exhibited that the gallery finance the printing and publicity for an exhibition.

Ultimately, I’ve just kept moving forward. I’ve had several one person exhibitions of my Jazz images and participated in many group shows. My most recent exhibition (2011) was at the gallery space for the Lincoln Park Coast Cultural District in Newark, NJ to honor James Moody. It was called Moody’s Musical Moods and featured musicians with whom he had worked through the years with special emphasis on Moody and Dizzy. In 2003, I also had a one-person exhibition called Dizzy’s Legacy at The Palazzo Agostinelli Museum in Bassano del Grappa in Italy (2000). Twenty-five of my Jazz images are in the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, and in years past, my Jazz images have been reproduced in a number of books and magazines.

What can be done to encourage more women to photograph music in particular, jazz in general?

I think that to decide to photograph music or Jazz music, in particular, is a very personal choice. For me, it was based on my love of Jazz music and the visual experience of watching Jazz artists perform. I don’t think a person just wakes up one day and decides to photograph Jazz artists. I think there has to be a lot of passion involved.

What have been some of the most personally satisfying music performances you’ve either photographed or simply experienced over the last year?

The most gratifying and spiritual Jazz music experience that I’ve had in the last year occurred in Paris last summer (2012). Yusef Lateef and Ahmad Jamal performed a concert together at The Olympia that Jimmy [Owens] and I attended. The music was one of the most moving musical experiences of my life. Yusef and Ahmad’s music lifted my spirits to a place of such purity and joy that I wept. It was truly transcendent.

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