Jazz Photos Gain Momentum as Collectibles

The mid-20th century was a time of tremendous political and social upheaval, technological advancement, and artistic innovation. Jazz---an American invention---is arguably the greatest single development in the history of modern music. Most of its pioneers are gone now, but their legacy lives on in their recordings---and in photographs.

The Golden Age of Jazz---loosely defined as the era from the 1930s through the 1960s---was a period when legends as diverse as Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, and Duke Ellington were extremely active performers. They were widely photographed by fans, photojournalists, and serious art photographers. Photos from the era are now in heavy demand in the art market, according to Art & Auction magazine.

Most sought are images by William Claxton, Herman Leonard, Francis Wolff, and William Gottlieb, all of whom specialized in jazz subjects. Photographers who made their names with other subject matter also did a substantial amount of work with jazz musicians. Aaron Siskind, Roy De Carava, Berenice Abbott, Robert Frank, Carl Van Vechten, and W. Eugene Smith are among those who did. And top-ranked photographers like Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, James Van Der Zee, and Lisette Model did a huge number of portraits and impromptu shots of singers and musicians.

Model alone made more than 800 jazz photos. Her prints were selling for more than $5000 each two years ago at the PaceWildensteinMacGill gallery in New York. Penn's shots of Miles Davis' hands were fetching prices as high as $15,000. The demand has risen enormously since then.

Prices for the photographs vary according to the artist's fame and the subject matter---from a few hundred dollars for a Gottlieb to a few thousand for a De Carava. As the Golden Age recedes further into history, visual records of the time are expected to become increasingly valuable. Esther Bubley, a photojournalist hired to shoot a Clef Records Jazz at the Philharmonic recording session in 1952 (with Oscar Peterson, Charlie Parker, and Benny Carter), is also in demand, despite the fact that jazz wasn't her specialty.

Amateur photographs can also be valuable---especially to those who took the shots. Mick Gannon, a lifelong musician, photographer, and jazz fan from Santa Cruz, California, has a collection of jazz images spanning more than 45 years. Four years ago he loaned 35 original prints---many of which he had shot himself and which were autographed for him by the musicians---to the University of California at Santa Cruz library for use in a Black History Month exhibit. Gannon assumed the library would treat his photos as the archival items they were, and was devastated when he learned that library staffers had cut up 16 of them to make a collage.

The school and library apologized and offered to compensate Gannon, then 57 years old, for the loss. "These were my heroes---they are a lot of people's heroes who are into jazz," he told reporters later. "These things can't be replaced. . . . It's just such a personal loss." Christophe Stickel, a Pacific Grove autograph dealer, said that autographed photos of Charlie Parker and Billie Holiday were worth as much as $2000 in 1995, at the time of the crime. Artifacts like Gannon's treasured photos will only continue to gain value.