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Rhapsody in black and white

Paul Hoeffler retrieves a lost world


On any given weekend, Billie Holiday, Sonny Rollins, or Stan Getz might be performing at the Ridgecrest Inn. Dave Brubeck or Louis Armstrong could be headlining at the War Memorial. Ray Charles might be playing a dance at the Roller Palace. And Ron Carter was always in the house band at the Pythodd Club.

            Welcome to Rochester in the late 1950s, the thought of which would make any jazz fan swoon.

            "It's a time out of reach," says Paul Hoeffler. "You can't go back there."

            That world may be gone forever, but thanks to Hoeffler, the golden age of jazz in Rochester will not soon be forgotten. As a teenager studying photography at the Rochester Institute of Technology, Hoeffler documented some of the greatest musicians of the 20th century with the reverence of a jazz aficionado and the aesthetic elegance of a master photographer.

            His photographs have been used on album covers and in Ken Burns' Jazz documentary. Now the largest collection of them ever displayed is on view at the Rare Books and Special Collections Department of the Rush Rhees Library at the University of Rochester, where they are part of the permanent collection.

            Hoeffler had no fancy equipment, just a used pre-WWII Leica 3C. He usually shot with available light, occasionally using a strobe unit that he won in a Boys Life magazine contest in 1953. His modest gear didn't stop him from taking knock-out photographs, capturing the energy and spirit of the time: Jimmy Smith gazing down at the keyboard of his Hammond organ, Louis Armstrong radiating love to an audience, Oscar Peterson's trio in an image so vivid you can almost walk right into it, and so many more.

            When Hoeffler arrived at RIT in the mid-1950s, there were three teachers working with the illustrative side of photography: Charles Arnold, Minor White, and Ralph Hattersley. Hoeffler remembers them as dedicated, kind, firm individuals who knew how to open up imaginations at a time when photography was not commonly regarded as art.

            "A lot of students were there on the GI Bill after Korea or World War II," says Hoeffler. "They were there to learn a trade, and all of a sudden you have Minor White talking about the sound of one hand clapping. What do you mean by that, Mac? So there was a confrontation, which was very healthy."

            While most students were in their 20s and 30s, Hoeffler was 17, fresh out of high school. Born in Buffalo, he had grown up in New England, where he was drawn to photography by his love of vanishing locomotives. Using his dad's Argus C4, he chased steam engines. It wasn't long before he outgrew drugstore processing and put together a darkroom.

            By the early 1950s, Hoeffler was earning money shooting local sports events. By the age of 18 he was spending summers on the staff of the Providence Journal. Still, he never regarded photography as an intellectual pursuit.

            "It was strictly intuitive; I followed what was in my mind's eye. If I followed my instincts things would work out pretty well."

            But things were not working out well when he started at RIT.

            "He never showed up for my morning class," Arnold says. "So I found out where he lived and went to his apartment. He answered the door half asleep and invited me in. There was pail of water on the floor in his room; in it were eight reels with freshly developed film. He explained that he spent every night at the Pythodd until it closed at 2 a.m. Then he processed his film."

            Not showing up for class could get you kicked out of school. But Arnold knew that some of the best artists don't toe the line.

            "He was doing exactly what I wanted students to do," Arnold says. "He was making marvelous photographs. So we worked out a gentleman's agreement: He would come show me work and I would criticize it."

            But how did a 17-year-old white kid from New England end up closing black jazz clubs?

            "I grew up in a middle-class home; there was not a lot of music around. We were 50 miles from Boston, but we never got to hear the Boston Symphony. But the radio played a lot of big band remotes in the early 1950s, so it would get into my ear. I hadn't had any direct contact with the music, but in Rochester there were small clubs you could go into that had music. Even though I was a bit under age I was able to get in."

Hoeffler remembers the day he got started. He walked over to the Pythodd, a couple of blocks from his apartment. He took some shots of the local musicians, printed them, and brought them back the next week. Through his photography, he got to know Bobbie Hendricks (one of singer John Hendricks' 16 siblings), who helped run the club.

            "I'd be one of the very few white people in there, but I never felt a draft," Hoeffler says. "Nobody ever gave me a hassle. This was true in most of the situations. I'd usually know somebody and be introduced. There was a trust; this wasn't some honky kid walking in. I had a purpose and I think people sensed that."

            Hoeffler had a similar relationship with Jane Morey, who owned the Ridgecrest Inn.

            "These pictures would not exist without three people," says Hoeffler, "Bobbie Hendricks, Jane Morey, and Will Moyle."

            Moyle, a Rochester broadcasting legend, took Hoeffler under his wing, allowing him to photograph shows he produced at the War Memorial and taking him out to lunch with stars like George Shearing. Moyle gave Hoeffler access to the backstage, where he was able to take candid photos.

            One of the first musicians Hoeffler photographed was Nat King Cole, who was chatting with Mel Torme before a show. Hoeffler began shooting, unobtrusively.

            "He looked over at me and said, 'You might want to have a more formal picture.' He put his arms on the back of the chair and posed for me."

            Another memorable encounter occurred in the fall of 1955.

            "With Louis Armstrong, I was in the wings photographing for the first half. At intermission I went back and there were people around Louis' dressing room. He was handing out 5, 10, and 20 dollar bills --- a lot of money in 1955 --- to people who needed 'a touch.' Then he went back in his dressing room and he and his trombonist, Trummy Young, were chatting. I shot a few pictures and he looked up and said, 'You might want to have a picture like this.' He put a bandana around his head and put the horn up to his lips and posed for me."

            Hoeffler shot a half-dozen frames. Before leaving he turned to Armstrong.

            "I said, 'By the way, Mr. Armstrong, last year I saw you in The Glenn Miller Story and you played a tune called "Otchi-Tchor-Ni-Ya," which I thought was marvelous. Is there any chance you could play that in the second half?' He looked up at Trummy Young and said, 'You think we can play that for our friend?' Trummy nodded, 'Yeah, we'll do that.' I thanked him and went down into the pit right in front of the stage.

            "The band came out and played a number, and then Armstrong spotted me a few feet down in front of him. He made an announcement to the audience: 'Last year we made a movie about Glenn Miller and we played a tune called "Otchi-Tchor-Ni-Ya." We have a special friend here tonight who has requested that tune, and we'd like to play that and dedicate it to our friend.' I was floating."

            Hoeffler bemoans the fact that this sort of personal contact for photographers has all but vanished.

            "You have all these stage managers who come up with 20 reasons why you can't do something. Or you have maybe the first eight bars of the first tune to shoot. I don't work that way."

            As a result, Hoeffler believes many contemporary performers never allow themselves to be presented in a compelling way to the public.

            "Sometimes there's not even a backstage anymore. At festivals there are trailers, which are rather unglamorous and unromantic. There are a lot of generic pictures being done today which don't mean very much."

            But access isn't the only reason for the magic in Hoeffler's images. He believes it's the musicians themselves.

            "I had access to the original, first-generation players and artists," Hoeffler says. "Today there's a huge amount of very talented and very well-trained performers. There aren't a lot of individualists, though, and individuality was really valued then. You could tell an Armstrong from a Roy Eldridge from a Dizzy Gillespie from a Miles Davis. Today, I don't know. A lot of players are so good and they play all the right notes, but I don't find the individuality."

            In his nightly excursions, Hoeffler photographed more than musicians. He portrayed Rochester's African-American community in a manner reminiscent of the way Eugene Atget and Henri Cartier-Bresson caught the essence of Parisian life.

            "You realize there's all this energy going on around the musicians, which is why they're on the stand performing," he says. "You look around and you have all these different personalities reacting to the music in different ways. Some dance, some simply stand there and listen and nod their heads, some are having conversations with other people and the music is just a background, but they're all involved."

            As for his attraction to black culture: "I just found there was more going on of interest in the black community than around the college where you had these kids in crew cuts and white bucks, swallowing goldfish."

            For Hoeffler, documenting the jazz scene soon moved beyond covering gigs. For his senior thesis, he decided to examine the musical career and life of Ron Carter, who Hoeffler had gotten to know from the house bands at the Pythodd and the Ridgecrest Inn.

            After recording thousands of albums over the last four decades, Carter is firmly in the pantheon of jazz greats. But back in the late 1950s he was a student at the Eastman School of Music, encountering some of the racial prejudice of the era.

            The series provided an opportunity for Hoeffler to explore social issues and music. Black students were rare at Eastman, and jazz did not receive the respect it enjoys today.

            "There's one picture of Ron practicing cello in a rehearsal room at Eastman. He'd written out some Sonny Rollins lines transcribed for cello. As I was photographing, one of his teachers came in and stood at the door for a while and said, 'Oh, what an ugly sound,' and turned and walked out."

            When he began the series, Carter had just gotten married. Many of the shots involve no instruments at all, just a young couple getting to know each other.

One of Hoeffler's most famous photographs, taken outside of Rochester, depicts a woman who came to be known as the Bedford Blonde. Sitting in the front row at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1956, she got up and danced during a 27-chorus saxophone solo by Paul Gonsalves of the Duke Ellington band, igniting a reaction from the band and the crowd.

            "Everybody was sort of on that evening," says Hoeffler. "There was an electricity in the air. Gerry Mulligan, Teddy Wilson, and Anita O'Day had performed and some people were getting up and leaving. It was a long evening. There was this shock of electricity through the whole audience. You could sense something was happening, this wave of energy. The band really was in a groove. Then the 'Diminuendo and Crescendo' came about and the audience just surged up around the bandstand. They all have these marvelous expressions on their faces. I was in the zone and that doesn't happen very often."

            But exhilarating times were matched by tragic moments. Hoeffler caught Billie Holiday at the end of her career.

            "She was a woman caught up in a cycle that she never seemed able to get away from," he says. "I didn't really see very much of her as a person, there was more of a shell at that time. The week she was at the Ridgecrest, I went out three times. There weren't many people at the tables. On weekends it would fill up. She would get into a song and then she'd forget where she was. I have a couple of pictures where she's turning around to the pianist, Mal Waldron, and she can't remember what she's doing."

            Hoeffler did manage to capture some happier moments in pictures of Holiday with her dog, Peppi. "This was a joy for her that removed a lot of the cares and worries and woes that she had."

            When 20-year-old trumpeter Lee Morgan came to town with Art Blakey in the fall of 1958, Hoeffler tried something different.

            "I said 'Lee, let's go outside.'" He took the picture in a dark parking lot, with a somewhat frightened looking Morgan about to put his trumpet to his lips. A background sign saying NO OUTLET became an sadly ironic twist when Morgan was shot by his wife in a New York City bar 12 years later.

            After a while, Hoeffler's jazz connections led him to bring artists like Oscar Peterson and Eric Dolphy to RIT. He would ask the musicians to play and then approach the Student Council for funds. They would tell him he had to ask in advance. Then, reluctantly, they'd hand over a check, saying "This is the last time!"

            When Blakey visited the school, Hoeffler took him up to the photo studio for a formal portrait. Blakey liked it so much he insisted on using it as an album cover. A week later, Hoeffler got a phone call from Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff at Blue Note Records, who offered him $40 to use the shot.

            "I thought: This is a long-distance call from New York. This was a big deal in 1958. I said '$50.' I hear muttering in German. 'Alright, $50!'"

            The album was Moanin' --- Blakey's classic. Decades later, when it came out on CD, Hoeffler contacted the producer and explained the situation. He received a $500 check.

            Perhaps Hoeffler's most stunning photograph depicts organist Jimmy Smith.

            "I had something in my mind's eye. Rather than the conventional shot, at keyboard level or in front of the instrument, I thought I'd get underneath and shoot up," Hoeffler says. "I was able to place a strobe off to the side and create this deep shadow. I got underneath the Hammond organ that he had and I was able to scrunch myself around and got off a number of frames both horizontal and vertical. It was a late-night kind of thing."

There were some that got away. Hoeffler had just finished shooting Thelonious Monk surrounded by members of the Prague Mime Troup at New York's Village Gate. It was a humorous photo with the mimes hanging on to every word by the equally silent Monk.

            "I had one frame left. Everybody else had left, but Monk is still sitting there. I really wanted to photograph him by himself. But I just felt I would intrude. So we just looked at each other. I nodded and we left it."

            Art Tatum died the week before he was going to appear at the Ridgecrest. And despite seeing Ben Webster many times, Hoeffler never photographed him.

            "You almost took some of the people for granted," he says. "There were concerts with Ellington that I went to where I didn't have my camera. I kick myself because now you realize that each and every opportunity was precious. But you can also build up this sense of responsibility. Then you're on edge so much that you're getting no pleasure from it whatsoever. It's like being pulled in two different directions."

            Hoeffler was never a generic craftsman who could photograph anyone. He had to be involved.

            "Everything that I photographed was a personal commitment," he says. "That takes a lot out of you because you're giving a great deal. Cartier-Bresson said it well, 'You don't take a photograph; a photograph takes you.' You're constantly seeing images and you're moving around a little bit because you want to get the composition accurate. And you cannot turn that off. It's almost a curse."

            Hoeffler has had a busy career beyond his Rochester years. He shot the first several P.D.Q. Bach album covers, worked for Vanguard Records, and shot countless images for the New York Times arts page. He made a name for himself in the classical world and got to know greats like Leopold Stokowski. He's never slowed down long enough to examine countless unprinted negatives --- possible treasures waiting to see the light.

            "I literally don't have the time to go looking and print for myself," he says. "I'm always printing for a project."

            Now 65, Hoeffler lives in Toronto with his wife, a classical pianist. He still does his black and white printing himself and sells his work on the Internet ( and in galleries. He still photographs in the arts and also shoots scenes north of Toronto that he believes will not exist in 10 years: barns, farms, single-lane bridges. "All of these things --- in many cases, they're going to be decimated by what is called progress."

            But thanks to an obsession Hoeffler had five decades ago, we have a glorious pictorial record of a pivotal era in American music.

Mid-Century Jazz in Rochester, 1955-1962: Photographic Prints from the Paul Hoeffler Archivecontinues through February 15 at the Rare Books & Special Collections Department, second floor, Rush Rhees Library, University of Rochester. Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday; 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesday; 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday. Info: 275-4477.