Jazz: The big picture

The “Jazz Mosaic” exhibition showcases jazz photography at the International Jaffa Jazz Festival.

Drummer Steve Smith takes the cymbal route (photo credit: ABRAHAM KABILIO)
Drummer Steve Smith takes the cymbal route
(photo credit: ABRAHAM KABILIO)
There is something definitively sultry, if not downright sexy, about jazz photography.
Think of the classic black-and-white shots of the giants of yesteryear and the intoxicating mix of earnest artistic endeavor, sweat and quintessential basement joint vibes they exude. Think of some of the timeless archetypal photographs – a young John Coltrane, one arm bent behind his head in a reflective- cum-emotionally spent pose; Herman Leonard’s iconic 1948 print of a behatted Dexter Gordon resting an impossibly long-indexed cigarette-holding hand across his saxophone, with the eddying smoke adding to the almost tangible ambience; or any of an abundance of stills that captured trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie super-inflating his cheeks and neck.
Some of that ethos and energy shine through the works on display at the Mandel Cultural Center in Jaffa, which hosted the second annual International Jaffa Jazz Festival last week. The “Jazz Mosaic” exhibition, which runs until the end of September and was curated by top entertainment photographer Yossi Zwecker – who is a dab hand at turning out a jazz tune or two on keyboards himself – features works by a seasoned roster of nine photographers such as Digi Deckel, Bob Rosenbaum, Margalith Hersonski, Peter Vit and Abraham Kabilio, as well as the curator.
US-born Rosenbaum is probably the most internationally experienced of the exhibitors, with more than 35 years of capturing the lives and art of some of the greatest performers ever to tread the jazz boards. But when it comes to homegrown jazz documentation, Kabilio is ahead of most of the pack.
Kabilio is a self-confessed autodidact and took a long and winding road to appreciating the intricacies and joy of improvised music, in addition to getting a handle on related photography. Wherewithal was an early stumbling block.
Colorful jazz singer Dee Dee Bridgewater is a dream subject for photographers (photo credit: ABRAHAM KABILIO)Colorful jazz singer Dee Dee Bridgewater is a dream subject for photographers (photo credit: ABRAHAM KABILIO)
“My parents were olim from Yugoslavia, and we didn’t have money to spare for luxuries like a radio,” he recalls. “Eventually, an uncle of mine gave us one.”
That, and an older sister’s scrimping and saving, helped to open the youngster’s eyes and ears to the popular sounds of the day.
“She bought records by people like [crooners] Paul Anka and Frank Sinatra,” says Kabilio. “But there were three kinds of music I couldn’t stand – classical, Arabic and jazz. I really couldn’t take all that jazz cacophony. That was the worst for me.”
Kabilio’s sibling-assisted musical education was enhanced when he enrolled at the Kfar Hayarok agricultural boarding high school and got into 1960s and ‘70s pop and rock.
“I grew up on the Beatles,” he declares. “I also liked Led Zeppelin. I was really into rock.”
But by his teens, Kabilio had also gotten an inkling of genuine jazzy sounds.
“My sister had a record by [iconic jazz drummer, pianist and vibraphonist] Lionel Hampton on vibraphone. That for me was the pinnacle of great music,” he says.
Back at school, Kabilio eventually got his first taste of the art of photography.
“They started with a darkroom, and I wanted to take part in that but I didn’t have a camera. My parents simply couldn’t afford one,” he recounts, The youngster was truly frustrated.
“One of my roommates had a camera, a [high-end] Rolleiflex. So I went to my father and pleaded with him, and he somehow managed to buy me a Zorki 3,” he recounts.
The latter is a Soviet-made product that dates back to the early 1950s and doesn’t even have a built-in light meter. It was a far cry from his roomy’s apparatus. But at least Kabilio had a camera of his own.
“This is where it all begins for me with photography,” says Kabilio. Once again, his older sister came to the rescue.
“She bought me a light meter. She’d send me 30-meter reels of film, which I’d cut up to the right size for the camera. And I really like working with chemicals in the darkroom. It all came to together for me,” he recounts.
Somewhere along the way, the teenage Kabilio found himself at the Mann Auditorium in 1971 taking monochrome shots of a trio of giants of the jazz world who were playing a concert there – Gillespie, reedman Sonny Stitt and drummer Art Blakey. Interestingly, Kabilio has no recollection of how that all came about.
Drummer Billy Hart (photo credit: ABRAHAM KABILIO)Drummer Billy Hart (photo credit: ABRAHAM KABILIO)
“Don’t ask me why I decided to go to the show, how I got there and how I got in to take pictures,” he chuckles. “All I remember is that I was right by the stage taking pictures of those three jazz icons.”
They may not have been the greatest jazz shots ever taken, but they certainly showed promise and a burgeoning feel for the music.
Kabilio’s 1972 jazz photography album features shots of modern jazz pioneer pianist Thelonious Monk, taken at the same Tel Aviv venue. While jazz per se had not quite grabbed the youngster by the heartstrings, he was moving along the desired trajectory.
Fast forward a couple of years, and Kabilio finds himself in the IDF, based at Kibbutz Grofit in the Arava. One day Mel Keller gave a concert and a talk about jazz at nearby Yotvata. The American-born saxophonist made aliya in the 1950s and is acknowledged as the founding father of the Israeli jazz community.
“I don’t remember exactly why I went to hear Keller, but it was fantastic,” says the photographer. “He didn’t just play, but he also explained the basis of jazz, how the musicians played the melody, and then went off into different directions, improvising, but that it all fed off the main theme. There were rules and there was a structure to jazz. Suddenly, it all made sense to me.”
Thanks to Keller, Kabilio began to tie up all the loose ends.
“After that, I understood what jazz was, and I also understood what I’d been photographing all those years,” he notes. “Since then, jazz, photography and I have been one and the same.”
Anyone who has been to the Red Sea Jazz Festival in Eilat over the years, for example, will probably have seen a diminutive short-bearded man close to the stage, zooming his camera in on one or other of the performers. And if you managed to gain access to the backstage area, you could find Kabilio “confronting” one of the artists with a print taken at the band’s previous gig at the festival. Foreign stars usually play twice at the summer edition of the festival. Kabilio’s photograph albums are full of autographed pictures of musicians who have appeared at the Eilat jazz bash over the past couple of decades or so.
Soul singer Roy Young has a word in his bass player’s ear at the Red Sea Jazz Festival in Eilat (photo credit: ABRAHAM KABILIO)Soul singer Roy Young has a word in his bass player’s ear at the Red Sea Jazz Festival in Eilat (photo credit: ABRAHAM KABILIO)
Kabilio’s living room walls are adorned with some of his works, but none of jazz. A couple of fetching shots of classical conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein hang alongside some attractive photos of dancers.
“Jazz is not necessarily the thing for me,” says Kabilio, “it is the live thing.
When I photograph jazz artists, I go with the music. I don’t have a lot of jazz records, although some artists used my photographs for their covers, so they sent me copies. I don’t listen to jazz much on records. For me, it is all about the live thing.”
Kabilio certainly captures the moment, and his works in the “Jazz Mosaic” exhibition – as do all the pictures on display – make for captivating viewing.
The “Jazz Mosaic” exhibition is on display at the Mandel Cultural Center in Jaffa until the end of September. For more information: (03) 681-9294.