Jazz, through the lens of Milt Hinton's humanity

by Minji Kim

"My goal was to shoot musicians the way we see ourselves… I felt strongly about using my camera to capture the people and events from the jazz world that I was lucky enough to witness. More than anything else, I wanted to be able to show future generations what it was like during my time."—Milt Hinton

A star bassist who provided the beats for jazz icons like Cab Calloway, Dizzy Gillespie, and Louis Armstrong, Milt Hinton used his camera as passionately as he plucked strings. Hinton’s black-and-white photographs capture candid moments of his famous friends and radiate the warmth that he shared with the jazz world of the 50s. Hinton had no professional photography training; he simply wanted to record moments of his era and share them—all 60,000 snapshots—with future generations.

Twenty-five of his photographs, on view through December 3 in the Holyoke Center Arcade, show scenes of laughter, playfulness, and sheer joy of these iconic musicians and friends. Captions quote Hinton’s descriptions and anecdotes of the people in the photographs, illustrating the intimate friendships he enjoyed with them. Dizzy Gillespie shows off his signature "trumpet" cheeks while playing with children at the jazz festival in Nice, France. Sarah Vaughan, Pearl Bailey and Ella Fitzgerald practice onstage with wide smiles and "no make-up, no fancy clothes. Had any of them known I was taking this kind of shot, they would’ve grabbed my camera and exposed my film."

Some of the most compelling photographs, however, capture moments of solitude in the musicians’ daily lives. These are rare, self-absorbed moments, windows into the quiet side of jazz life. One that is especially beautiful and heartbreaking is of Billie Holiday as she sits with a bowed head and tensed eyebrows, disappointed with her playback at what turned out to be her last recording session. In this private, heavily emotional moment, Holiday is so deep in her distress as she yearns for her younger days that she is unaware of Hinton and his camera.

Hinton personally marked his favorite photographs to be used for exhibitions, which have traveled to the Parsons School of Design, the Corcoran Gallery and the Smithsonian Institute. David Berger, long-time friend of Hinton who lovingly called Berger his "white son," first stumbled upon the piles of negatives and contact sheets when he was 16-years old. Originally having called Hinton for bass lessons at age 14 after Arvell Shaw turned him down, Berger gave up after six months and just "hung out" thereafter. In 1979, 24 years later, Berger and co-curator, Holly Maxson, began cataloguing the photographs together and had the first exhibition in a private Philadeplhia gallery.

The photos are a documentation of the explosive jazz era through the lens of the camaraderie and affection that Hinton felt for his colleagues and friends. Hinton’s legacy is not only his incredible musical virtuosity and versatility, but also his compassion and personal impact that he had on others around him.

"Milt really was the kind of person that if he spent two minutes with you, you’d feel so special, so connected and loved. He really had a state of grace. Some people walk in the room and they have such charisma that you can feel their power. With Milt, it wasn’t power, it was an all-encompassing, genuine concern about you. That you are special to him," said Maxson.

"He would have wanted to get all his photos out to the public. That was really his goal. He really lived by a certain philosophy that if you’ve learned something in life, your job was to pass it on," said Berger.

[Caption: Billie Holiday, last recording date, recording studio, N.Y.C., 1959. Photo by Milt Hinton, Courtesy of The Milton J. Hinton Photographic Collection ©.]

[Caption: Cannonball Adderley, recording studio, N.Y.C., c. 1958. Photo by Milt Hinton, Courtesy of The Milton J. Hinton Photographic Collection ©. ]