Bill King unearths collection of ’90s photographs of Canadian jazz icons

This article was originally published by FYIMusicNews.


In a recent thorough cleaning of our neglected garage, I unearthed an orange-coloured box of black-and-white photographs from the ‘90s. I recognized the contents and the purpose behind the broad protective housing.

My first inclination was to grab the smartphone, photograph a few, and post them on Facebook. Moments later, people began commenting on the photos — some of them of musicians who had long ago passed. With that in mind, I began searching through other boxes. Then the massive undertaking: Pulling out the many binders of negatives, reviewing, scanning, spotting and correcting. One solid week of 14-hour days, culminating in a 4K video of 100 images: Our Lives in Black & White – The ‘90s.

When I first started printing from negatives, I’d bike daily to West Camera on Queen Street West and rent darkroom space. Those orange boxes contained 100 sheets of photo paper, ample supply to engage in the art of printing. The delight of watching an image of worth ascend from the blackened shadows fulfilled an impulse to move something stored in imagination into the real world. From there, it was manipulating F-stops, timers, dodging and burning. Each step influenced the success of each print.

Those were particularly transitional years for Toronto musicians. We see the progress of young lions, saxophonists Mike Murley, Bob Brough and Kirk MacDonald; guitarists Reg Schwager and Lorne Lofsky; bassists Neil Swainson and Rich Brown; singer Emilie-Claire Barlow; pianist Dave Restivo. There was reliable studio work for players like trumpeter Guido Basso, multi-reedman and flautist Moe Koffman, keyboardist Doug Riley and multi-instrumentalist Don Thompson — not only giants of the recording scene but bandleaders of significant influence. These were the last hours of an era that safeguarded a healthy income for players with enormous sight-reading and performing skills.

Koffman foresaw the coming storm — the digital revolution — and changed gears, taking to the road and making money by performing live. CD sales, coast-to-coast festivals, club dates, corporate gigs, music publishing, composing were all prosperous if one could get the business side structured. It was during this intermediate period that I began to pursue photography as passionately as music.

In 1989, renowned jazz photographer Paul Hoeffler approached me a year after Greg Sutherland and I had established the Jazz Report magazine. Hoeffler was a master printer and erstwhile former student of noted black-and-white photo icons Minor White and Ansel Adams at the Rochester Institute Technology. Hoeffler earned a reputation thanks to his captures of Louis Armstrong in his dressing room before a big show in Rochester in 1955 and his photos of Duke Ellington at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1956. From there, he took heroic pictures of Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan.

In the latter years, Hoeffler became a recognized curator of mid-century jazz through his work for Verve, Mercury, Prestige and Blue Note, culminating in more than 200 photos in Ken Burns’s 2001 documentary mini-series Jazz. The acknowledgment placed Hoeffler alongside other photo dignitaries Herman Leonard, William Claxton, Roy De Carava and William Gottlieb. Hoeffler died of cancer in 2005, at the advent of the digital age of photography.

During a remarkably productive apprenticeship with Hoeffler, I moved from nightclubs to concerts and backstage capturing these images. By day, I hung around his boxing photos in those cast-off orange cartons from West Camera, eyeing the replicas and negatives and examining every corner of Hoeffler’s master prints. I logged each minute of discourse and criticism and committed it to my work. When reviewing this era — the players and sustained movement — I’m reminded, this is us, our lives, music and love for art. Thank you, Paul, and also Gordon Parks, the essayist, documentary film director, photographer, musician and composer. A true renaissance man, inspiration and genius.