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Bebop In Black & White 

Library hosts stunning jazz exhibit

Gallery L at the Main Library celebrates its first year of existence with Portraits for The Golden Age of Jazz: Photographs by William P. Gottlieb.

Gottlieb gives a sober and clear eyed view of a time when America's only homegrown music burned hottest. It was the 1940s, on 52nd Street between 5th and 6th Avenue in NYC. One city block where the stars suddenly aligned in a confluence of talent bright enough to light that street for the next five years, and hot enough to change American music forever.

The names alone shine: Satchmo, Duke, Dizzy, Billie and Bird. Thelonious, Ella, Miles. Each of these legends and many lesser luminaries were captured by writer and self-taught photographer William Gottlieb as he roamed and recorded swing street events. Gottlieb stilled his subjects long enough to preserve a visual record of a time, a place and the players few others found reason to document. These portraits allow us to put a face on a music impossible to convey in words. (That's not to say that the jazz-immersed devoted don't keep trying.)

Gottlieb began writing about jazz for the Washington Post in 1938. After a few weeks, the Post told Gottlieb they would no longer spring for the cost of a staff photographer to provide images for his weekly Jazz column. That wouldn't do. Gottlieb bought a Speed Graphic, that unwieldy, behemoth clunker of a camera used by newspapermen of the day. He tamed the beast and managed to convince his subjects, the then and future greats of jazz, to hold that pose.

The best portrait painters and photographers manage to let us think we know these people, or at least see a piece of us in them. Perhaps for Mr. Gottlieb, his unabashed devotion to this music and these people made up for his inexperience with the camera. Or maybe he was just a lucky natural behind the camera. Whatever. The results are great.

For those of us who know Jazz about as well as Afghani surnames, Gottlieb's talents as a writer are very welcome. Each photograph is accompanied by his notes on the music, the moment, the men and women. You can tell the man was a writer first. I have suffered many a crappy blurb accompanying visual art, and these intros to his photographs are easy to read, pithy, and only occasionally poignant. Not a drop of saccharine, thank you.

Charlie "Bird" Parker is shown sitting with his devoted disciple, Robert "Red" Rodney. They sit shoulder to shoulder in 1946, looking for all the world like segregation is just a bad dream. Their eyes are fixed on Dizzy Gillespie playing his horn. We see Dizzy reflected in the mirror behind Bird and Red. Bird's eyes, here as in all the photos of him, are open wide open, entranced. Everyone is wearing a suit.

Gottlieb tells us about Charlie Parker: "Bird was widely acknowledged to be the supreme jazz genius of his time. He was also widely acknowledged to be the most self destructive. Drugs. Alcohol. You name it. But somehow his musical talents prevailed over his worse excesses. When he was blowing, Bird could effortlessly produce chorus after chorus of wondrous improvisations. He could turn standard tunes into amazing melodies no one had ever heard before."

These photographs cover the period between 1938 and 1948, a white hot time for jazz, but also a time which neatly encapsulates a 50 year tradition and a time which was the jumping off point from swing to bebop, arguably the longest leap in jazz history. Or perhaps the greatest plunge, depending on who you're talking to.

The Golden Age of Jazz, the art exhibit and the book, begins with old timers -- Louie Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, "Leadbelly" Ledbetter and others who played New Orleans-inspired jazz early in this century. During Gottlieb's tenure, many old timers were still around, and the future of Jazz -- Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis -- was just cranking up. Gottlieb relays the questions the Monk, Miles and other beboppers posed: "Why must there be the same old theme and variations format? Why must jazz be danceable? Why must it be entertaining? Melodious? Harmonious?..."

They were a difficult bunch. Particularly Miles.

One amusing photograph here shows Miles Davis watching trumpeter Howard McGhee blowing his horn, playing bop. McGhee stands in profile, wears sunglasses, ignores Miles. Davis is seated (or kneeling) under McGhee's horn, a gaze of innocent wonder and adulation on his face. Absorbed and smitten.

Soon after this photo was taken Miles would have his own opportunity to ignore his admirers. Gottlieb explains: "Miles became known as the coolest of the cool cats, not only in his playing, but also in his behavior. When performing he displayed a 'drop dead' attitude. He'd blow his horn. Period. No mugging. No singing. No jokes. No dance steps. In fact, he sometimes contemptuously turned his back on his audience while taking solos. He kept real cool, man."

Thelonious Monk wears a dark beret and thick rimmed shades. He looks up from the piano with the slightest of slight smiles. He wears a pinstripe suit, his black hands spread across white keys. A tiny grand piano pin is stuck on the rim of his beret. He looks beyond cool -- he is interior, shy and intense.

Jazz haters point to Monk as their case in point. Monk is on the other end of the music train from Muzak. You can't dance, sleep, think (about anything else), or have sex (without hurting somebody) to his sounds. He is difficult. You gotta listen and learn and try. You either get it, eventually, or you give up. I'm still trying.

This show runs through April 2. Related events celebrating Black History Month and National Women's History Month are happening over the next few weeks at libraries throughout Charlotte. For exhibits and related programs, call the library at 336-2020. The events conclude on Friday, April 19, with Dianne Reeves at the McGlohon Theater.

An unbiased plug for our library: After six stunning months of digesting the high price of our country's unequaled liberty, come to the library to see what we get for our money. For the unwashed masses, this place is about as good as it gets. Our library is the best cultural outreach program in the country: Novello, Gallery L, youth services, and a media and computer room to weep over. The library system here in Mecklenburg County, and in particular our main library downtown, is the real jewel in the crown. Light Rail, Arena, World Class, blah, blah, blah. You want world class Charlotte? Go to the library.

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