The latest photography show at Santa Clara University celebrates the energy and attitude of a distinctly American art form

From left: Eric Dolphy, 1964; Miles Davis (foreground), with Cannonball Adderly (lower left), and Jimmy Cobb, 1959. (Courtesy of Chuck Stewart Photography, LLC. All rights reserved.)

Jazz is photogenic.

Just as how the sport of boxing is well-suited for cinema and travel for literature, jazz renders beautifully in black and white photography. Whether it’s the mood or the instruments or the sharp clothing (or all three), the genre and the medium come together with a compelling cohesion.

This perfect monochrome union within silver gelatin comes into sharp focus in the new photography exhibit, Jazz Greats: Classic Photographs from the Bank of America Collection, at the de Saisset Museum at Santa Clara University. Boasting a unique cross section of photographers—including the likes of Gordon Parks, Chuck Stewart and Edward Steichen—the exhibit encompasses six decades of the culture, showcasing an elite assortment of jazz music’s legendary artists and iconic figures.

Dizzy Gillespie, 52nd St., NYC, 1948; By William Gottlieb; (Courtesy of the Bank of America Collection)

Among the 30-plus photographs on display, the show contains a live performance image of a young Kind of Blue-era Miles Davis, a closeup of Eartha Kitt singing in all of her badass glory and a trio of images featuring Louis Armstrong that includes both casual moments and a dramatic portrait.

Beyond the musicians themselves, the imagery also contains more peripheral elements of the culture—with photographs of dancers, concert hall marquees and audience reactions—to evoke the wider legacy of jazz in the U.S.

“Photography works so well in capturing the moment and the energy,” says Lillian Lambrechts, Head Curator of the Bank of America Collection. “And this Jazz Greats… exhibit is all about movement and energy and heartfelt music, which certainly belongs to America.”

For local organizers at Santa Clara University, the multi-faceted nature of the imagery spoke to their interest in hosting an exhibit that would not only appeal to the diversity of their audience but could do so on a variety of levels.

“For us, being a museum of art and history, this exhibition really let’s us touch upon both,” says Lauren Baines, Assistant Director of the de Saisset Museum at Santa Clara University. “We can celebrate the artistry of the photography and the musicians, but also the history of jazz, the history of race relations; all of these larger, more difficult conversations that we want to tackle through our exhibitions are really made possible through this show.”

From left: Joe Williams; Earl “Fatha” Hines, 1966; and Billie Holiday. (Courtesy of Chuck Stewart Photography, LLC. All rights reserved.)

With these larger conversations in mind, the organizers at de Saisset have put together an eclectic program of events to accompany the exhibit, including live performances, a family-oriented art-making program and a panel discussion on jazz, race relations and social change. On this latter point, the historical context provides tangible entryways into modern social currents.

Mary Lou Williams. (Courtesy of Chuck Stewart Photography, LLC. All rights reserved.)

“We also saw the exhibition as a launching point to look at civil rights all the way to contemporary conversations surrounding Black Lives Matter,” Baines says, “and looking at the connections between jazz and justice in the ‘50s and ‘60s, and whether the culture still has that advocacy today.”

Of course, for a genre that once represented all things hip in the U.S., the coolness factor of jazz is considered, as well. The exhibit space itself is designed with a jazz lounge sensibility and includes a record player with a curated list of vinly LPs to match the musicians featured in the photos, as well as selfie station boasting a retro-looking microphone as a prop.

Mindful of the fact that the golden age of jazz was more than a half century ago, Baines says she is still gauging student perceptions of the exhibit, but optimistic that that there are multiple contemporary tie-ins to draw them in, even some unexpected ones.

“It’s interesting,” she says, “one of our students said ‘I think the timing is right, because everyone was so excited about the movie La La Land.’ And I hadn’t even thought of that.”

John & Alice Coltrane, 1966. (Courtesy of Chuck Stewart Photography, LLC. All rights reserved.)

Jazz Greats: Classic Photographs from the Bank of America Collection runs at the de Saisset Museum of Santa Clara University until June 16th. For more info on the full upcoming event schedule related to the exhibit, click here.

For inquiries into signed photographic prints by Chuck Stewart, email to [email protected]

Charles Russo

Award-winning writer and photographer with extensive experience across mediums, including videography, investigative reporting, editing, advanced research, and a wide range of photography.

Author of Striking Distance: Bruce Lee and the Dawn of Martial Arts in America; represented by Levine Greenberg Rostan Agency.

Freelance clients include Google, VICE and Stanford University.

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