De Saisset showcases portraits of American music legends
The Santa Clara
February 8, 2018
Now showing at the de Saisset museum is the Bank of America collection of classic jazz photographs. These photos capture both the dramatic, passionate jazz club culture of the 1900s, as well as more intimate moments with some of the greatest musicians in American history.
Jazz has long been at the center of African American culture, from early jam sessions in 1910s New Orleans to samples on today’s hip hop and rap records. “Jazz Greats” invites the viewer into the heyday of jazz in an intimate, small gallery setting.
The de Saisset offers great fluidity in the design of their gallery spaces. “Jazz Greats” takes full advantage of the two small gallery rooms allotted for its display.
Upon entry to the first gallery, the viewer is greeted by a minimalistic, monochromatic design that compliments the black and white photos of jazz legends such as Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday lining the walls.
Two bar-height tables with chairs occupy the empty space in the middle of the gallery under mid-century style hanging lights that fill the room with a warm glow.
The photographs in this first gallery capture the liveliness and passion of the jazz club scene. Dancers whirl and sweat drips down the faces of the musicians. There’s hardly anyone else present apart from the staff and myself on this particular sunny Saturday afternoon.
The stillness creates an eerie contrast with the speed of movement captured in the photos of the club scene.
The second gallery features more intimate photographs of various performers in their homes and on the road. Some visitors might recognize the famous photo of Louis Armstrong smiling next to the recording equipment he set up in a Seattle hotel.
Armstrong smiles broadly as he fiddles with the equipment. I’ve heard there are hours of unreleased recordings he created while on the road.
In the corner, a record player invites visitors to add a soundtrack to their experience. In addition to the photographs, this gallery also has a small collection of coffee table books about jazz, black history and photography, as well as couches to relax on while reading.
The photographs in both galleries hold the power of jazz and, much like the music they immortalize, call out for a response. One outlet for this response is the visitor’s interaction with the record player. By engaging with the music, the visitor becomes part of the jazz history in the photographs. Jazz is an incredibly interactive genre. An exhibit about jazz would be incomplete without some form of interactivity.
An excerpt from an essay written for the exhibition by Margaret Rose Vendryes of City University of New York adorns one wall and praises photography as the most “democratic in its accessibility—to photograph takers, makers, and viewers,” as well as the “crystalline depth of field achieved with film.” The practices of the de Saisset follow that spirit of accessibility—the museum’s galleries and collection of historical documents and art pieces are free and open to the public.
The designers of the exhibit did an excellent job of overcoming one of the great challenges of working with a small space—getting people to linger and absorb, rather than walk through and move on. I felt that I could spend hours lounging on the couches listening to the record collection and flipping through books.
The galleries felt more like ornate living rooms than museum spaces. Much like jazz, the galleries were intimate, emotional spaces that the public should take advantage of while they last to experience jazz in its prime.
Contact Ethan Beberness at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (408) 554-4852.