Jazz in Available Light


Veryl Oakland is an American freelance photojournalist. For nearly 30 years he sought out and photographed the great American jazz musicians. He became friends with many and visited them at home or in the hotels where they were staying. This book is a compilation of 350 classic black and white photographs taken of the artists at work, rest and play. More than half of the images are full page. Many of them have never been seen before. As a rule, photo books leave the images to speak for themselves but here Oakland provides the stories that lie behind the pictures with anecdotes, observations and items of biographical information.

There are many great images in the book, including Pat Martino in 1967 at Berkeley Jazz Festival looking practically as thin as the guitar case which he is stood behind

When a flood devastated Oakland’s home, it damaged his collection of jazz negatives. It took him 20 years before he could face trying to salvage them. He thought they’d been ruined but discovered that with some effort most could be preserved. This book reveals the fruit of his labour. The pictures are organised by artist and each group of photos is accompanied by a brief description of the photo shoot. To give a flavour, artists include Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Sarah Vaughan, Buddy Rich, Stan Getz, Dizzy Gillespie, Sun Ra, Thelonious Monk, Dexter Gordon, Roland Kirk, Art Blakey, Bill Evans, Phil Woods, Cecil Taylor, Paul Bley, Weather Report and Wynton Marsalis amongst many others.

Oakland studied cornet for seven years before he stumbled upon a jazz radio station in his late teens. He became hooked on jazz and when he heard Dizzy Gillespie he never picked up his horn again – he knew he would never be capable of creating music like that. So instead, after leaving university and completing military service in the early 60s, Oakland bought his first camera – a Nikon F – and began to photograph the musicians who played it. He began hanging around the night clubs in Reno, Nevada and found that if he was still there during the early morning shows, management seemed to care less about what he was doing. People began to regard him as part of the scenery and he ended up getting access to the backstage dressing rooms. It was here that he came across Ellington and photographed him lying on his back having a nap between performances with his feet up high against the wall. Apparently Ellington often did this in the belief that it improved his health by “reversing the blood flow”.

There are many great images in the book, including Pat Martino in 1967 at Berkeley Jazz Festival looking practically as thin as the guitar case which he is stood behind; Joe Zawinul at his home in Pasadena energetically sawing branches from a pine tree; Art Pepper larking around with his third wife Laurie and pretending to fall ill on the floor just before going on stage; Sun Ra with nine members of his Arkestra spaced out (possibly in more ways than one) on the sidewalk outside his row house in Philadelphia. (One of them is a young Marshall Allen who at 94 now runs the band in Sun Ra’s intergalactic absence.) Then there’s Shorty Rogers aboard his mega yacht, “Jolly Rogers”; Jimmy Garrison performing with Alice Coltrane and Archie Shepp; Woody Shaw high-fiving Dexter Gordon in their hotel room after a successful performance; Paul Bley sitting on telephone directories so he can reach inside the piano; Betty Carter facially inspiring her bassist to greater things; John McLaughlin and Carlos Santana holding and playing the same guitar together; a young and provocative Carla Bley posing outside an amusement arcade; Mal Waldron playing chess at home; Cecil Taylor in his New York loft and Stephane Grappelli visiting a violin maker’s shop in San Francisco.

Oakland doesn’t give us much information about the equipment he used over the three decades and apart from telling us that he never used flash he provides little of the technical detail involved in taking the images. However, the background to one of his most famous images is graphically described. He was trying to get a group photo of Weather Report in Berkeley at the beginning of their 1978 world tour but the quartet were too far apart on stage to get a tight shot. Oakland tried again backstage after the finale but the scene behind the curtain was bedlam. He finally got all four together in a dressing room for a quick shot but they were being yelled at to hurry so they could make their flight connections. Thinking quickly, he grabbed a makeshift bench for them to sit on but because the room was so small he knew it would be hard to pull off a picture. The only lens he had that could fit them all in was a slow 20mm wide angle but a proper exposure meant using a shutter speed of 1/15 of a second. To complicate matters Jaco Pastorius barely had room at one end of the bench to even fit on it. There was no more time. Oakland squeezed off four shots hoping that one might be sharp enough. Then Weather Report were gone, whisked out of the building. Surprisingly the results came out better than expected. Columbia Records selected one of them for the back cover of the group’s blockbuster 1979 album 8:30.

The book is heavy, weighing in at five pounds. It’s handsomely produced with the Miles Davis image that you see on the dust jacket debossed in black and silver on the hard cover. It has an introduction by Quincy Jones, a comprehensive index and a useful bibliography. It’s an invaluable addition to your library if you’re interested in the history of jazz and a must if you’re into jazz photography.

Oakland is donating 20% of all profits from the sale of the book to the Jazz Foundation of America which helps musicians when they hit hard times.

Jazz in Available Light: Illuminating the Jazz Greats from the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s
By Veryl Oakland. Schiffer Publishing, Pennsylvania, hb, 328pp, 350 photographs, 9.2 x 1.5 x 12.5 in. $60. ISBN 978-07643-54830