Brian O’Connor has been photographing jazz musicians since the 1970s and has photographed a number of jazz legends. Here he talks about his images and his upcoming exhibition at the South Coast Jazz Festival.
How did you first get into jazz?
“Although I enjoyed pop music of the late 50’s you would occasionally get to hear the Latin variety over the airwaves, and this became my favourite. Edmundo Ros for example, remember him? I also was fortunate to get hooked on Sinatra and the Great American Songbook. Then in 1962 Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd hit the shelves with Jazz Samba. I now know that in fact Laurindo Almeida and Bud Shank were in a not dissimilar vein approximately 10 years before, but their music never registered on the radar over here. The BBC had an extremely restricted output when it came to choice of music genre. The minor hit of Desafinado began my journey in to jazz. Then, combined with my membership of the Sinatra Music Society (whose members appreciated more than just ‘Ol Blue Eyes’) the door was finally open.”
“Stan Britt, a member of the Society, was on the point of becoming a freelance writer on all matters pertaining to jazz. He knew I was also interested in photography, and suggested I accompany him to gigs and interviews. The dye was set. From 1971 until to today. Stan unfortunately passed away in 2014, but the partnership lasted nearly 30 years.”
Tell us about some of the jazz legends that you’ve photographed.
“Where to begin? By 1971 a few of the legends had been promoted to the band in the sky, but many were still very active. Dizzy Gillespie, Milt Jackson, Count Basie, Dexter Gordon, Andre Previn, and so on. Anecdotes galore, but one in particular sticks in the mind. Stan was interviewing Andre Previn in his hotel, and I had my trusty camera. Unfortunately Stan did himself no favours with his ‘hippy’ attire in those far off days, and I could see Andre was slightly non-plussed at the sight of his interviewer. He was even more unsettled when Stan, always on the careful side regarding using batteries in his recorder when there was a mains plug about, politely asked Andre if he’d be so kind as to plug the recorder in for him. The plug was under the table, nearest to Andre. If only I’d had the guts to take a photo of Mr. Previn’s facial expression. He did however do as required. Stan had though a major redeeming feature. He was a brilliant interviewer, and the interview lasted for nearly 90 minutes, well over the original 30 minutes scheduled. Brilliant.”
“Basie at breakfast time, buying a takeaway Chinese meal for Adelaide Hall, sitting in the middle of a Henry Mancini recording session…I feel a bout of nostalgia approaching.”
Which are your favourite photos?
“A difficult one this. After 45 years I’ve been quite pleased with a few. It never does to be completely satisfied. However, off the cuff, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Esperanza Spalding, Woody Shaw, and Dexter Gordon are perhaps easy choices.”
What have been some of your favourite gigs that you’ve been to?
“Being new to the game, and seeing one of my heroes for the first time, Stan Getz at Ronnie Scott’s in March 1971 has to be a standout. He was with Eddy Louise on organ, Rene Thomas on guitar, and Bernard Lubat on drums. It was being recorded, and the atmosphere and music was so electrifying that I went 3 times that week. My day job suffered. The recording was issued as the double LP, Dynasty, on Verve. It has been re-issued on CD. For once I lapsed in to fan mode. My LP is signed by all 4 musician, plus Ronnie Scott, Benny Green, and Spike Milligan. Auction at Bonhams coming up. Following that, all of Decter Gordon’s gigs at Ronnie’s, plus Oscar Peterson, and of course Joe Pass. To be sat just in front of Joe watching and listening to him play was a complete joy. Again, the answer could go on and on, but just to come fully up to date, and to show that I’m not totally bound up in the past, American pianist Helen Sung’s gig at the Watermill Jazz Club in Dorking earlier this year was, as they say, somethin’ else!”
What photos will be exhibited at the Ropetackle Arts Centre in January?
“The Arts Centre only has room for a limited number of pictures, and I’m still in the process of making the final selection. I will though no doubt include Claire Martin, Nikki Iles, Arun Ghosh, and a couple more who are appearing at the Festival.”
For more information on Brian O’Connor and to view his extensive catalogue:
An exhibition of Brian’s photos will appear throughout Th.e South Coast Jazz Festival and during February, at The Ropetackle Arts Centre, Shoreham.
Photo of Esperanza Spalding by…Brian O'Connor.