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This article by Frank Rivera was prepared for the December 22, 2004 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Portraits of the Jazz Artists

‘Images of Jazz,” a show by photographer Alonzo Jennings, opens at the Arts Council of Princeton’s WPA Gallery on Monday, December 27, with a reception from 6 to 9 p.m. Jennings is much more than a photographer: He has also worked as a teacher, a poet, and an artist. In his various endeavors, he says, his goal has always been “advocacy of the human spirit.” He, therefore, sees no conflict between his many roles. Curiously, he is not a musician.

An African-American man, born in 1945, Jennings lived with his grandparents in Georgia for several years, while his mother, a single parent, worked in the North. Like many children of his age and race, he received a sub-standard education in the South. When he joined his mother in Paterson, he had to repeat several grades. When he finally graduated from high school, he was 20; he was the first in his family to receive a diploma.

Jennings came of age in the turbulent 1960s and acquired his first camera when he was a freshman at Montclair College (now Montclair State University.) The camera was a “Sears-brand Ricoh.” He had the camera with him when he took a girlfriend home to Newark in 1968, and got caught in the riots there. He took some photographs; and the experience was an involuntary induction into photojournalism.

Many in his generation served in the Peace Corps, but young Jennings joined the late Reverend Leon Sullivan on a self-help training project in Ethiopia. Africa had a profound impact on his attitude toward life and art. During his stay he met the Emperor Haile Selassie, as well as Duke Ellington, who was on a State Department-sponsored tour of Africa. Selassie represented a humanistic ideal for him, while Duke Ellington represented “art.”

Perhaps more important, Jennings connected with a group of people who were mad for jazz. The fact that there were no clubs to speak of did not stop these aficionados from getting together every Sunday for hi-fi listening marathons. “These guys were older, in their 40s. (Jennings was 28.) Everyone was more versed in jazz than I was,” he says. “Everyone shared their recordings; it was very communal. I just listened and learned.”

When he got back to the states, Jennings’ “civic-mindedness,” as he calls it, pushed art to the back burner while he worked on an master’s degree in public affairs at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School (1970 to 1972). After graduation he worked a routine job by day, but at night he prowled the jazz clubs of Philadelphia. His timing could not have been better. Philadelphia was simmering like some alluring “pot au feu,” ready to be moved to the front burner. Jennings upgraded his cameras and lenses and prepared to make the rounds.

Jennings’ recollection of his pre-Philadelphia history was low key. When he turns to the Philly jazz scene, however, he kicks into overdrive. “The middle 1970s was a fabulous time,” he says, ticking off some of the great night spots — the Foxhole, Jewels, the Chestnut Cabaret, and the Red Carpet Lounge.

In the past, Jennings had used recording devices to capture sound. He says, for example, that he had made a transcription of pianist Alice Coltrane’s playing when she visited Ethiopia. That reel-to-reel recording, now lost, prefigured his “need to document,” which entered a new dimension with his use of the camera.

What had been a reactive need to document jumped — virtually overnight — to a proactive “mission to document.” That mission, as Jennings defines it, was to photograph as many of these legendary musicians as is humanly possible. In the mid-1970s, “Many of the greats were aging; others had issues around drugs and alcohol. I felt a certain urgency to get on with it.”

His photography is in pursuit of that fragile moment when the human soul is made visible. His approach is humane and sometimes even deferential. In a world of paparazzi, Jennings’ civil methods may have denied him some opportunities. He was willing, for example, to hang back and let others shoot first. He never used a flash and even put his camera away if a performer said “No.” How as he able to succeed at all under these self-imposed restrictions?

“You’ve got to stay alert,” he says. “When it happens I step outside myself and with luck — lots of luck, I’ll get it. I’ll capture that window into the soul.” Faces are his forte: Billy Eckstine, Sarah Vaughn, Betty Carter, Joshua Redman, Dianne Reeves, and Kurt Elling to name a few. Then there are those great shots that are not faces at all. These are emblematic images, no less expressive than the artist’s face: the hands of Kenny Barron, the back of Miles Davis, the shadow of Dexter Gordon. In an acknowledgement that the soulful moment belongs equally to the unknown, Jennings gives us a poignant no-less eloquent image of an anonymous street musician.

Jennings went digital in the year 2000. It took him about two years to feel comfortable in the new format. About 40 percent of the work in the current show is digital.

Meticulous oversight of each step of the process, from loading the film to matting and signing the print is important. “Going digital” has not altered his fastidious methods. He describes the process of enlarging to 11 by 14 inches, working with the lab person until every nuance meets his approval. “If the image needs to go back to PhotoShop,” he says, “I take it back.”

Listening to Jennings discuss the technical aspects of print finishing, one realizes that in addition to being a fine photographer, he is also an accomplished technician. The same Jennings has written four volumes of poetry. (His most recent volume is “Echo, Joy, and Encounters with God.”) During the day, he teaches gifted and talented students at William Allen Middle School in Moorestown, where one of his subjects is “Japanese Anime.” In the evening, he hosts monthly workshops and readings at the local Barnes & Noble. He has been a painter, a printmaker, and a collagist; and some of us remember him as the host of Slam events at Trenton’s Urban Word Cafe.

Gifted with a good memory, he is an entertaining raconteur who is able to cite liner notes from many of the more-than 5,000 recordings in his personal jazz collection.

Viewing Jennings’ photographs is second only to being in those smoky clubs, transported to those wistful honeyed nights before tobacco was banned. If you are hankering for that place, where you hear the rolling applause between riffs, then the work of Jennings is a must see.

— F. R Rivera

Images of Jazz: The View Beyond the Music. Arts Council of Princeton, WPA Gallery, 102 Witherspoon Street, Princeton, the opening on Monday, December 27, from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m., features a free poetry reading by Jennings, who is accompanied on the piano and flute by Joe Steele. Following the reading, there is a concert by the Jazz Squad, for which there is a $5 admission. The art show runs from Monday, December 27 through Monday, January 3. Open Monday-Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Saturday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Call 609-924-8777.

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