Friday, March 21, 2008

Playing the Changes

Playing the Changes: Milt Hinton’s Life in Stories and Photographs
By Milt Hinton, David Berger, and Holly Maxson
Vanderbilt University Press

His photographs have graced the walls of the Smithsonian, the Corcoran, and the Denver Art Museum. His bass can be heard on classics recordings by giants like Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, and Cab Calloway. Few jazz artists were as recorded as the studio stalwart, and fewer still did as much to document the music as did this intrepid photographer and interviewer. Milt Hinton’s dual role as participant and documenter of jazz history is richly celebrated in Playing the Changes, a lavish combination of memoir and illustrated photography book.

Though too modest to say so outright in his memoir, Milt “the Judge” Hinton was absolutely beloved by his fellow jazz musicians, particularly bassists. Bassist-vocalist Jay Leonhart always pays tribute to Hinton in his one man show, The Bass Lesson. The Academy Award nominated A Great Day in Harlem relied almost entirely on the photos taken by Hinton and the 8mm footage shot by his wife Mona for its original source material. His photography would also be collected in books and displayed in prestigious museums and galleries. Hinton writes of his dawning realization of the historical importance of his hobby:

“Some of the pioneers like Chu [Berry] and Jimmy Blanton were already gone, and some of the other greats were well on their way to early deaths. For some reason, I felt strongly about using my camera to capture the people and events from the jazz world that I was lucky enough to see. I guess I realized I was actually living through jazz history.” (p. 313)

In Changes, Hinton covers many career highlights, like his early years touring with Cab Calloway and playing on Billie Holiday’s final recording session. He also toured the Middle East with Pearl Bailey and her husband Louis Bellson on behalf of the U.S. State Department. One particularly noteworthy foreign trip was a gig in the Soviet Union at the party of Ara Oztemel, an Armand Hammer-like businessman and one-time jazz musician. Spending ten days in the USSR for a forty minute gig, Hinton was sought out by the local underground jazz musicians in a hotel dollar bar. Through his fast friends Hinton came to understand the precarious position of jazz musicians in 1972’s USSR:

“The government seemed to control all the music. Some guys who worked in the hotels told me they’d have to submit a list of tunes they wanted to play and then wait for approval. Evidently, there was a great deal of concern about playing foreign music.” (p. 277)

As a photographer, Hinton was less concerned with composing a shot than simply being prepared for a moment worth immortalizing. For instance, there are great shots of his Calloway band-mates sleeping on trains and busses. His photographs are remarkable for the ease of his captured subjects. Obviously his colleagues were just used to having Hinton and his camera around, but their trust was warranted. While his photography may not have the expressive passion of Francis Wolff’s, Hinton always seems to convey the essential humanity of his subjects—his photos of Holiday’s final session being an excellent example.

Changes is probably the jazz book of the year. In addition, to the photos (many of which are published here for the first time) and Hinton’s memoir (expanded from a previous addition to cover the final years of his life) Changes comes with a CD of Hinton in words and music, which really does give one a fuller sense of the man. Lovingly assembled by his friends Berger and Maxson, it is a fitting tribute to an artist who supported the music in so many ways.