The Royal Treatment: Charles Peterson

510G1CZ0P9L._SL500_SS500_W. Royal Stokes, longtime observer of all things jazz and author of several volumes on the subject, has dropped his “Roundup of 135 Jazz, Blues, and Beyond Books Published in the Past Year or So.” This is more than a mere listing. Stokes provides mini-reviews, annotations if you will, of almost all 135 titles. It is a marvel of dedicated reading and critical economy and well worth the time. It is kind of him to say of Blue Notes in Black and White: “The author commands, as evidenced in his more than fifty pages of source notes, a comprehensive familiarity with the history of jazz, its recordings, and its literature. This is a landmark contribution to jazz scholarship.” Thanks for noticing those notes, Royal. They are the shadow book that props up the real one.

Of course, one of the props is Royal Stokes’s own work, in particular his volume Swing Era New York: The Jazz Photographs of Charles Peterson (Temple University Press, 1996). This is the most comprehensive volume of Peterson’s work and it inspired me to learn more about this remarkable guitarist-turned-photographer, whose story I tell in Chapter 1. Peterson is probably the least-known of the great mid-century photographers of jazz, in large part because he gave up photography in the early 1940s. It was just one phase in a picaresque life that he seemed to make up as he went along. As a musician, he had played with hot jazz players in the 1920s and had toured with crooner Rudy Vallee. When he learned photography from  distinguished Clarence White school in New York, he began to specialize in photographing working musicians for a range of magazines in the 1930s.

He is most closely associated with an important spread on jazz published by Life in 1938 as “Swing!” Peterson and his ally, guitarist Eddie Condon, slyly persuaded Life to run not only photographs of the popular big bands of the day, but to examine the roots of the music in the small group jazz of which he had been a part a decade earlier. With the collecting of long out-of-print small band records on the upswing, Peterson documented a recording session organized by Eddie Condon of the hot style that spelled authenticity to many longtime fans. Peterson’s photograph of clarinetist Pee Wee Russell at the session, given a full bleed in Life, made a celebrity of the shy but hard-drinking jazzman. Fans jammed Russell’s gigs holding copies of Life to compare with the real thing.

Peterson’s photograph of Louis Armstrong in the same spread not only treats the trumpeter as a serious artist (albeit in pajamas) but is the one photograph in the spread that shows jazz as an interracial undertaking. Satchmo is the King of the Trumpet even in his slippers. This maverick image is typical of Charles Peterson’s work. Thanks to Royal Stokes and Peterson’s son Don for making more of that work available to the world.

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