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'And All That Jazz': Herb Snitzer Photography Exhibit Brings Musical Icons Into Focus

Jul 11, 2018

When Herb Snitzer was photo editor for the jazz magazine, Metronome, in the early 1960's, he occasionally got complaints from subscribers. Why, they asked, were there not more stories about the white musicians of the era like Benny Goodman?

Snitzer says the reason was simple. The magazine was intent on covering what they knew to be true. Jazz more than any other music, expressed the black experience in America.

"Especially during that period of time,” he said. “They not only had to fight the racism; they had to fight the fact that they weren't even recognized as people."

Some of the artist’s most iconic jazz images are included in an exhibit of his work, “Can I Get A Witness: Photographs by Herb Snitzer,” now on view at The Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg.

As he walks through the gallery, Snitzer reminisces about the stories behind the pictures and the artists in them.

One of his most recognizable photos was taken during a summer road trip when Snitzer traveled with Louis Armstrong as his band toured the country in a converted school bus.

The photo is of Armstrong holding a cigarette, and looking intently into the camera. It was a hot day, so his shirt is unbuttoned and a Star of David hangs from a chain around his week.

"It was given to him as a birthday present when he was a little boy, which he wore his whole life,” Snitzer said.

The necklace was from a Jewish family who lived in Storyville, the same poor neighborhood in New Orleans where the musician grew up. The family also gave him money to buy his first musical instrument -- a kindness Snitzer says the trumpet player never forgot.

"He always had a Jewish bass player,” Snitzer said. “I think that it was payback and I'll stand by the story. It's a great story,” he added with a laugh. “I hope it's true."

Herb Snitzer, "Nina Laughs." 1959.
Credit Courtesy of artist

Snitzer also spent a lot of time with one of the first ladies of jazz, singer Nina Simone. The two met in 1959 when they were both in their twenties and the photographer was hired to shoot the cover for the singer's second album, "The Amazing Nina Simone."

"She was open, creative, lovable and all the other positive adjectives one could put on her,” he said.

A photo from that session depicts Simone looking joyful, with sparkling eyes and a wide smile. It's a bittersweet image since the singer had a long history of depression and was a victim of domestic abuse.

The photographer acknowledges that Simone's struggles changed the girl he once knew and later in life, she became known as difficult to work with.

" But I loved her," he stressed. "People were always trying to get me to say something bad about her but I never will."

Snitzer was also behind the lens of a famous Miles Davis photograph taken the year before he died.   

Now Miles had a reputation of hitting people and I thought to myself, he is not gonna stop playing. He's not gonna hit me. So I just kept photographing.

The African American trumpet player is dressed entirely in black with several gold chains around his neck.  The musician looks pensive as he takes questions during a 1990 press conference at the Newport Jazz Festival.

"And Miles was thinking about how he was going to answer,” said Snitzer. “It was at that point with the combination of the gold and the black t-shirt and the black skin, I couldn't stop photographing."

Davis was known for having a volatile personality. Snitzer experienced that first hand when Davis caught him snapping photos during a concert, one that was supposed to be off limits to photographers.

"Now Miles had a reputation of hitting people,” said Snitzer. “And I thought to myself, he’s not gonna stop playing. He's not gonna hit me. So I just kept photographing.”

And Snitzer hasn't stopped.

At 86, his muse these days is the people in his home of St. Petersburg. He says he hopes those photographs, and the ones of jazz icons on display in St, Petersburg, bring the people he’s met along the way into sharper focus.

Wednesday night on All Night Jazz on WUSF, hear music inspired by the MFA exhibition on the Jazz Trip at 10.