In his jazz photographs, Dan White controls a freeform art.

Notes on Film 

In his jazz photographs, Dan White controls a freeform art.

Jazz is an evocative and loaded word. It conjures black-and-white images of musicians blowing beloved horns, pounding pianos or fingering guitar frets, captured in instantly iconic moments. Typically, the performer is onstage in some cramped and dingy club, beads of sweat gathered on his forehead, which gets wetter with every solo. A trail of cigarette smoke surrounds him as he plays for his life — or as she sings her heart out — while the few people in the audience watch with approval. These images are so alive that a viewer can practically hear the music.

Dan White does not take that kind of photo. Or, if he does, nothing like it is included in his exhibit at the American Jazz Museum.

The 50 pictures here are more controlled. Each black-and-white print is 3 feet square, with White's subjects most often standing in carefully arranged poses. Posted throughout the gallery are revealing, surprising anecdotes from interviews that White conducted with the musicians, who talk about their relationships with jazz and Kansas City as if one is synonymous with the other. The words describe Kansas City's legendary but now mostly defunct jazz scene as much as the photographs do.

For the past 20 years, White has followed the big names of the Kansas City jazz scene: Claude "Fiddler" Williams, Diane "Mama" Ray, Jay McShann, Queen Bey, Sonny Kenner and many others. Each is connected to Kansas City in some way. Sadly, nearly one-third of the 50 artists have died since White took their pictures.

White won the Pulitzer Prize for photojournalism when he covered the Hyatt Regency skywalk collapse in 1981. He now works as a commercial photographer in Kansas City. He started this project in 1987, but he'd been interested in jazz ever since he made a trip to New Orleans in college. Hearing Dixieland coming from every bar and doorway as he walked down the street, he sought to capture in images what he heard in the music.

All of the photos were taken in Kansas City: some in White's studio at Ninth Street and Broadway; some at people's homes; and some at recognizable clubs such as the Blue Room, the Majestic and the Mutual Musicians Foundation — "Sort of whatever I felt the background needed to be for that particular shot," White says.

The strongest images are those in which a performer seems most natural; conversely, the mood flattens when a musician appears simply to be posing. An outdoor photo of saxophonist Eddie Saunders falls in the former category. White's steady lens catches Saunders as he leans against a stucco wall that's painted with descending and ascending oversized quarter notes. Sunlight falls at an angle, creating a swath of light as it passes behind and onto the musician — we can feel the warmth. At the same time, though, Saunders' fedora, glasses and cigarette are angled down, giving the impression of cool. In Gerald Scott's portrait, the musician shares equal room in the frame with the body of his big electric bass, the neck of which points into the distance. Scott's dotted polyester shirt, his big glasses and a large gold cross also feature prominently in the picture. Joyous, with a cigar in his mouth and thick fingers on the guitar, Scott is cast against a stark white background, looking as if he's on the edge of breaking out a funky solo.

The photograph of upright-bass player Milt Abel beautifully achieves what White cites as his reason for not shooting the musicians in performance. White says he avoided that familiar setting because he'd seen too many jazz photographs in which the lighting wasn't good. "I wanted to handle it differently. I wanted a better quality and the best image I could get," he says. In doing all of the lighting himself, White gets a kind of clarity that would be hard to capture in a live setting.

"Twenty years ago, I'd go listen to people play. I found them fascinating and interesting and wanted to capture their faces for posterity," White says. He has created a document of the music after its time in the spotlight has passed.

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