Nubar & Wynton:
Meditations in 'C'

November 2002

by David Friend


The eyes have it.

When it comes to photography and the five senses, sight clearly has its siblings beat. But from time to time photographers come along whose images have successfully courted, and seduced, the lesser organs.

Alt TextLife’s John Dominis, for example, earned considerable renown as a food photographer, creating scenes so sumptuous observers could practically taste them. Photojournalist Julio Donoso, in his memorable work on “The Essence of Grasse,” depicted undulating fields of lavender and jasmine in colors vivid enough to smell. But the photographs of Nubar Alexanian are a breed more confounding still.

Alexanian, it so happens, takes pictures you can hear.

His new book, Jazz (Walker Creek Press), produced in collaboration with the Merlin of the medium, Wynton Marsalis, contains image after blues-stoked image that awaken the reader like the blasts of a reveille: Marsalis the Soloist trading a tune with a backstage mirror; Marsalis the Friend helping sightless band-mate Marcus Roberts toward his piano stool; Marsalis the Mentor squeezing the puff-adder cheeks of a would-be trumpet student. The volume’s splendid design—lean and square, meant to approximate a CD jewel case—reinforces this aural aura. And on each spread Marsalis offers his own axioms, sage riffs on the spirit of jazz, accompanied by actual handwritten musical notations (to which readers can play along).

Jazz, like Alexanian’s 1996 book, Where Music Comes From (Dewi Lewis Publishing), is proof of what I would call the Alexanian doctrine: Photojournalism, like jazz, springs from astute improvisation, from the ability to interact with the cues of an environment so as to catch and expand upon the essence of a moment. The thesis is not too dissimilar from the one jazz chronicler William Claxton once offered: “Photography is jazz for the eye.” (By the way, if you get a chance, check out Claxton's new book, Photographic Memory, published by Powerhouse) with an introduction by Graydon Carter, editor of Vanity Fair, who quotes this classic Claxton quote.)

Alexanian, 52, is probably best identified with his otherworldly black-and-white studies of Peru (Stones in the Road, from Aperture, 1992) and his beloved Gloucester, Massachusetts (Gloucester Photographs, Walker Creek Press, 2001). But to my eye, and ear, it is his music photography, shot largely in color negative, in a fluid, free-wheeling documentary style, that distinguishes him as a visual interpreter of the subtleties of modern culture.

I remember an afternoon in the early 90s when Alexanian came to my office at Life, where I was serving as the magazine’s director of photography. With unruly tufts of black sagebrush above his ears and an elfin gleam in his eyes, he had the energetic, physical bearing of an Armenian Roberto Benigni.

That day, he took out a stack of photos, yapping a stanza a second about a personal project he had recently begun. The work was impressive. His environmental portraits of musicians seemed almost transcendental. As I flipped through them, I felt transported to the studio or the concert hall, enchanted by the trancelike swoon of a gospel singer or the mighty swoop of a conductor’s baton. He told me of his relationship with a generous patron, an executive at the Massachusetts-based Bose Corporation (producers of high-end sound systems and stereo equipment), explaining how Bose had helped underwrite his work. He had also taken magazine assignments to spirit things along. I immediately joined the chorus.

Within a few weeks, I sent him on his first of many music shoots for Life. He photographed Garth Brooks at several sold-out concerts. Then he went further, covering the country-and-western star's offstage life as he washed his laundry, visited his mom, studied his reflection—and the aptly affixed Elvis snapshot—in the mirror of his local barbershop. He convinced the reticent, camera-shy Paul Simon to let him accompany the singer for several days as he practiced and composed. He followed Ladysmith Black Mambazo to South Africa, then he went on the road with Phish, who ended up adopting him for a time as a virtual bandmate; soon Alexanian was photographing Phish members in pajamas, in the sauna, as they dined with friends or unloaded gear from the back of the car.

His most memorable frames for Life, however, evolved out of the time he spent with Wynton Marsalis. Alexanian criss-crossed the country with Marsalis as he held jazz and classical workshops. He sat with him in hotel rooms as he composed. He accompanied his jazz band on a European tour. Many a night, Alexanian would phone from the road to regale me with tales of Marsalis’s dizzying schedule, his marathon jams (describing impromptu sessions in small clubs that would hurtle on into the wee hours) and his wholesale generosity (explaining how Marsalis would occasionally offer his private phone number to young advice-hungry music students he would meet at high schools or recitals). In their wake, these sessions helped produce some the most intimate portraits ever taken of the Pied Piper of 21st century jazz, now the artistic director of New York’s Jazz at Lincoln Center.

Alexanian’s access came slowly on most of his Life assignments. Few of the performers’ handlers felt comfortable allowing a guy with two Leicas to just hang around and wait for something marvelous to happen. “They were used to high-end production shoots,” Alexanian remembers. “These people weren’t used to photojournalists. The publicists [said], ‘Nothing in sound check. No pictures on the bus.’ ” Marsalis was no exception. At first, he seemed averse to “candid” shots. So one night Alexanian knocked on his hotel-room door and simply handed him a copy of his book of Peru photographs. An hour or two later, Marsalis phoned him up, Alexanian recalls, and said, “I like your stuff, man. You can photograph whatever you want.” Thereafter, Alexanian had complete access—and a friendship that continues to this day.

Looking over Jazz, I’m struck by how two utterly unrelated mediums seem intrinsically entwined. Both music and photography bewitch in a visceral way, beyond words. Both arouse the senses directly, requiring no intermediary. Both require only a single creator. Both speak eloquently to those in distinctly different countries and classes. And both tend to explore themes that are arguably subjective expressions, open-ended statements that are ripe for interpretation by the viewer or listener who brings along his or her unique set of associations and reactions.

No wonder, then, that some of the most treasured times I’ve spent with photographers are those I associate with music. Attending Woodstock ’94 with photographer Andy Levin (an accomplished percussionist in his own right). A road-trip with Michael O’Brien to see Alex Chilton (former lead singer of The Box Tops and Big Star—and an old buddy of O’Brien’s), only to end up sprawled on the floor of Chilton’s Louisiana crash pad. Hearing Maryknoll nuns, at prayer, with Susan Meiselas; gansta rap, in east L.A., with Ross Baughman. Watching flamenco with Andre Lambertson and David Turnley; Koko Taylor with Alexander Tsiaras; John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers with Frans Lanting and Sue Brisk. Cranking up Schumann’s “Spring” symphony while driving, snow-blind, through a Newfoundland squall with Lee Balterman. Belting out late-night Scottish ballads with Harry Benson, doo-wop with Brian Lanker, or listening as Gordon Parks—an accomplished composer—queued up the new Diana Krall CD, the one he had played, day and night, while toiling over his latest autobiography.

And the countless contact sheets and stories and CDs traded over the years with Nubar Alexanian.

Herewith: Jazz, by Alexanian and Marsalis.

If photography be music for the eyes, play on.

© David Friend
Contributing Editor

David Friend is Vanity Fair’s editor of creative development. As Life’s director of photography he worked frequently with Nubar Alexanian. Last year Friend’s twins, Sam and Molly, were in the same French class as Wynton Marsalis’s son, Wynton Jr.

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