Portrait

Remembering David Redfern, the king of jazz photography

  • Louis Armstrong © David Redfern/Redferns, courtesy Getty Images

    Louis Armstrong © David Redfern/Redferns, courtesy Getty Images

  • David Redfern © Leon Morris/ Redferns

    David Redfern © Leon Morris/ Redferns

"The Cartier-Bresson of jazz." David Redfern, who died this week, is remembered by one of his closest friends

David Redfern, one of the most influential and revered music photographers of his generation, died last week, aged 78, three years into a brave struggle with pancreatic cancer, writes Leon Morris, a long-time friend.

In the pantheon of music photographers – and particularly in the uber-hip niche of jazz photography – Redfern ranks as a pioneer. He was, until his passing, the undisputed elder statesman of jazz photography.

Many of Redfern’s images have already achieved iconic status; many more will achieve that status as his archive continues to be unearthed. In Whiplash, the 28-year-old debutant director Damien Chazelle’s multi-award winning independent film released early next year, Redfern’s image of drummer Buddy Rich, head turned, mouth wide open, hands ablur, is taped to the wall above the young student drummer’s practise kit. It is a recurring talisman for the film’s theme of physical and emotional tension in pursuit of the elusive perfection (or imperfection) of jazz genius.

That image, about as close to perfection as a live image of a jazz drummer can be, was taken side stage at Ronnie Scott’s jazz club in London in 1969. It has now entered the lexicon  of high art achievement because Redfern was uniquely on hand to exercise his own brand of high art.

The small fraction of a second it took to squeeze the shutter required a lot of work. Redfern had access because he had earned the confidence, respect and friendship of both Ronnie Scott and Buddy Rich. He knew where he needed to stand (seemingly close enough to the horn section to be rubbing shoulders with the trombone player); he had the eye, and patience, to frame the image dramatically; he had the sensitivity to know (and feel) when the moment was just right; and he had the craft and skill to ensure his exposure was exactly right. No surprise that Dexter Gordon described him as the Cartier-Bresson of jazz.

The resulting print sings. Some 45 years later, a young film director has recognised Redfern’s achievement in this photograph: he has placed the viewer as a participant in that singularly intense moment of artistic creation. If the best of modern jazz, as Whiplash seems to suggest, is about striving for excellence, then Redfern only mirrors that perfection. He reminds us that great jazz is a conversation between the musicians and the audience. He invites those of us who were not present to feel as if we were, to imagine what it would have been like to be there; as if Buddy Rich is playing for us, right now, and forever. Could there be any greater accolade for a concert photograph?

Redfern achieved this timelessness again and again. His joy of music was not just limited to stylish representation. He wants the viewer to cherish the artist’s performance as much as he does. He understands that one of his pictures, one of those squeezes of the shutter, might be ascribed the role of summing up a musician’s lifelong pursuit of musical excellence.

Redfern was always aware of the potential history he was recording. He underscored this with his continuous commitment to work, even when his illness made him frail. Right up until his last images from the French festival circuit in the summer of 2014, he continued to strive to capture something more expansive than a high-quality record of a performance. He instinctively knew he was only ever a second away from the next great image, another affirmation of his lifelong role as chronicler of music greats.

David Redfern did not just capture some of the most memorable images of the golden era of modern jazz – unforgettable and enduring images of Miles Davis, Ben Webster, Bill Evans, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Art Blakey, Nina Simone and Louis Armstrong spring to mind – he was also responsible for defining images of artists including Frank Sinatra, The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Sandie Shaw, B.B. King and John Lee Hooker.

While he was partial to big bands and swing, and was instrumental in defining the attitude and lighting we now associate with modern jazz, he was at heart a blues man. There was nothing he liked more than a rollicking blues guitar solo – he was, if truth be told, more Sonny Landreth or Roy Rogers than Pat Metheny.

One of his career-defining gigs was Jimi Hendrix’s final performance at the Royal Albert Hall in February 1969. Granted privileged access by the promoter, he took full advantage of the high-quality lighting. In those days there was no fast colour film, and no self-respecting photographer would disrupt a concert with the use of a flash. The only option for colour photography was long exposures using stage lighting, which almost inevitably resulted in unusable blurred images. But Redfern’s images of that are stunningly sharp and vibrant. While the transparencies lay dormant for a couple of years, they have since been sold over and over again, including a best-selling poster adorning hundreds of thousands of walls worldwide. More recently, Hendrix has become the stunning centrepiece for the fabric printing business Redfern has developed with his wife, the fashion designer Suzy Reed.

His warmth and sense of humour ran deep. He liked to describ himself as the son of a preacher man (he was), and seemed never to tire of Ronnie Scott’s nightly routine of jokes. He was mightily amused by Buddy Guy’s delivery of the Lowell Fulson song Love Her with a Feeling –“One leg in the east, one leg in the west, I’m right down the middle, trying to do my best” – and he had a seemingly endless repertoire of memorable anecdotes, some of which he shares in his self-published memoir The Unclosed Eye; others he saved for friends over a late-night brandy to mark the end of another day.

He was also a soul man who revered a great vocal. Asked for his favourite performers, he would usually single out the vocal snorts of Bobby Blue Bland and the irrepressible energy of the very Reverend Al Green. Always the consummate professional, the measure of the performance was filtered through the quality of the pictures. A great concert with poor light or inadequate access couldn’t hold a candle to a performance that allowed good access and with light enough to please his trademark Hasselblad.

Many of Redfern’s best black-and-white images – of Miles Davis, Ben Webster, Bill Evans, Sonny Rollins and Duke Ellington – are important contributions to the jazz imagery developed across the Atlantic by his contemporaries like William Claxton, William Gottlieb and Herman Leonard. Sadly, all four luminaries have now passed, while their peerless images continue to inspire current and future generations of photographers.

Redfern was an early adopter of colour photography for live jazz concerts. It is probably his Englishness that permitted this – in London, he was photographing visiting American artists in the well-lit TV studios of the BBC. And when he made his first trip to New York in 1967, it was straight to a Herb Alpert television recording, where he captured what may be his most enduring image: a colour image of Louis Armstrong, strategically framed against a bank of lights. The image was chosen by the US Post Office in 1996 as one of 10 postage stamps in an American Jazz series. Three of the 10 stamps in that series – Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins and Thelonious Monk were by Redfern.  If ever an endorsement of his status as an elder statesman of jazz photography was needed, this was it. If ever there was a glimmer of doubt about the role of an Englishman in documenting an African American art form, this silenced it.

Redfern believed “that photographers are born, not made”.  He was born in England’s Peak District on 07 June 1936. His interest in jazz and photography dates back to his national service in Germany, where he bought his first 35mm camera and became hooked on jazz at a Hamburg concert featuring, among others, Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie and Oscar Peterson. Demobbed, he picked up a job working in the Kodak factory and found himself living in St Johns Wood in London at the time trad jazz was beginning to take off. By 1959 he was photographing music festivals, and in the early ’60s he began photographing early British television programmes such as Ready Steady Go and Thank Your Lucky Stars. The next stage of his career was the international festival circuit, and the rest, as they say, is history.

David Redfern was, in every way, quintessentially English. He was a tall, affable and engaging gentleman with a moral compass set firmly to social justice. Everyone liked David, and David would either return the sentiment or be very diplomatic. His urbane and outgoing manner oozed a natural charisma. He was outrageously attractive to women of all ages. He would often default to harmless flirting; or just beam that huge smile of his, perhaps followed by a deep guffaw of a laugh that told you all was good in the world of David Redfern.

The truth of it is that it wasn’t always good in the world of Redfern. In later years, prior even to his battle with cancer, industry changes led to him sell his eponymous music picture library to the behemoth of global digital imagery, Getty Images. This was no easy decision for Redfern – he was a well-respected leader in the British Association of Picture Libraries and Agencies (he was the President of the Association from 1989 to 2013) and had watched as smaller agencies such as his were progressively swallowed up by industry giants.

Redferns Music Picture Library thrived on reputation and relationships. His was a small, team-based effort with dedicated photographers and staff who cared deeply about their photography and their relationship with the music industry. In the end, a boutique music library, however popular, could not escape the tidal wave of mergers. As he has explained in a slightly different context: “Unfortunately in this photographic digital age, it’s adapt or die.”

When he finally sold his name, his images and his library to Getty Images, he negotiated to retain the rights over a selection of his premium images for fine art and related purposes – a wily decision that has underpinned the gallery and fabric printing business he established with his wife at the Brampton Road premises he retained when the library was sold.

Like other photographers of his generation, schooled as he was in the chemistry and craft of picture-making, he has lived through the digital revolution. Gone now is the widespread recognition of the photographer as a respected artist providing a valuable contribution to the development of the industry. In its place is a new paradigm of control and restrictions: access restricted to the first three songs or the back of the hall, draconian contracts, impatient minders. As he wrote in 2005: “Nowadays one has to cut through so much hype and crap before one can even consider whether to photograph an event or concert.”

And this from a man befriended by countless musicians; for whom Chuck Berry once stopped a concert so he could introduce David and make sure he was lined up and ready to catch Berry’s legendary duck walk.

It is indeed sobering to consider how many images we might not be able to enjoy if today’s restrictions had applied when David Redfern was building his archive.

The proud recipient of the Milt Hinton Award for Excellence in Jazz Photography in 2007 and the Parliamentary Jazz Award for Services to Jazz at the UK Houses of Parliament earlier this year, Redfern has lived his life to the full. “This vast scheme of life we have,” he wrote in 2005. “Ain’t no rehearsal. As we ride off into the sunset, I’ll quote from the song from the great Louis Armstrong. It’s a wonderful world.”

He is survived by his wife, two ex-wives, three children, five grandchildren and hundreds of thousands of memorable images.

davidredfern.com

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