I am a big time lover of jazz. I listen to jazz every single day, I go to see live jazz as much as I can, and I practice jazz drums as often as possible. Over the course of my career, however, I haven’t really photographed that much jazz. Why? Well there are a few reasons to be honest. For one, shooting music in a club, where jazz is most likely performed, is very difficult. As a photographer I never want to distract anyone from experiencing the music they came to see and paid for. So moving around a club without being a distraction to patrons is very challenging. Not to mention moving around a club when servers are trying to get drinks and food out to tables, likely in a club that is smaller than it should be!
Moreover, is the fact that I have long reserved jazz music as purely for my own enjoyment; my own listening pleasure. Photographing my favorite jazz artists has never really been a big goal of mine because I’d rather attend a show as a fan, not as someone who is working (even though I love to work). So recently all of this came to the surface when I found myself within striking distance of photographing my favorite modern, working jazz band, Snarky Puppy. I’ve been following this band since 2014 when a friend of mine (in Scotland nonetheless) told me to check them out. So it took 5 years for it to drift into the realm of possibility that I would have a chance to photograph them. In 2019 I got to shoot them twice, and this past January I got to shoot them 3 straight nights in Miami. The interesting thing about all of these instances is the fact that I was in a “rock n roll” setting – ie none of the times were we in a jazz club. All the shows were on stage, in front of a standing audience, and there was even a photographers pit so I could be right in front.
Here are a few things I realized about “being a photographer” when tasked with photographing a group of jazz musicians I absolutely idolize:
Just as I thought, it’s hard to listen intently and concentrate deeply on making images at the same time.
I dont think this is like “walking and chewing gum at the same time.” If you are engaged in the music and you are concentrating on what the band is doing musically, bringing into focus (no pun intended) what you need to be doing as a photographer is really hard! It’s like being ambidextrous with your brain; it doesn’t come naturally! Why? Because the technical side of being a professional photographer requires you to be concentrating mostly on what it will take to get an amazing photo, especially at a live event. You are thinking about your exposure setting, composition, and focus simultaneously; you are not necessarily thinking “oh this guy is playing a killer solo!” This would be one of the times you’d really want to have earplugs in just to allow your brain to concentrate more on the photography, and not processing the incredible music as closely as you may want!
Photographing jazz can be way more challenging than photographing rock n roll.
Why is this? Because jazz is less flashy. Theres less lighting, less visually to work with in general. And if you have musicians that play on the more stoic side (ie they don’t make “jazz faces”) then it’s even more difficult to create a compelling image. The Snarky Puppy members play pretty stoically! So being patient and “seeing things” that may not quite be there, is key.
Photographing jazz causes you to focus on one major thing; mood.
Jazz IS mood. Especially if the music has no lyrics. The instrumental nature of it creates a mood, and that then becomes the job of the photographer – to capture that mood, no matter what it may be. You may be saying to yourself “well sure but is mood an element at any concert, right?” Of course mood is an element to any show and to all music, but if you ask me, when it comes to jazz music, it is monumental. I say this because most of us put jazz music on to “create a mood.” Could be at night, at dinner, maybe even in the bedroom (ha!). So given what I’ve already said, it’s my #1 priority to create mood in the photo so that it conveys very accurately whats happening while the music is being created.