Four Lessons Learned Through the Photography of Jazz Bassist Milt Hinton

Four Lessons Learned Through the Photography of Jazz Bassist Milt Hinton

988 1240 Josh Solomon

As somebody who loves photography enough to write for a photography website, I have a confession to make – photography is not my first love. That honor goes to music. It’s my favorite thing in the world, the thing I spend the most time doing, and I’m lucky enough to call it one of my jobs. If you put a gun to my head and told me to choose between a life in music or a life in images, I’d choose music every time. Thankfully, nobody’s holding a gun to my head.

Still, I’ve always felt a weird pressure to distinguish myself as one or the other, a photographer or a musician, usually to confused family or concerned friends or over-it college career counselors. After studying both arts and practicing both for much of my life, I simply can’t imagine one without the other. Being a good photographer makes me a better musician and vice versa.

When I heard about musician/photographer Milt Hinton, I was relieved. For the first time I’d found a shining example of success in this duality that I wasn’t sure was possible. The similarities were uncanny – not only was Milt Hinton a musician and a photographer, but he was a bassist just like myself. His career as one of the world’s premier big band bassists and studio double bassists afforded him an unusually intimate perspective on some of the most famous musicians of his day, as well as a look at life as a working musician.

Looking over Milt Hinton’s photos as somebody who shares his profession has been a life-affirming experience. Though the subjects are of course different, the scenes are startlingly familiar – stressed out bandleaders in the recording studio, errant musicians found sleeping in a train car, guerilla recording sessions in a hotel room. Normally I’d break off here and highlight five of my favorite photos of his, but to do so wouldn’t do justice to the importance of his photography. Instead, here are a few lessons I’ve learned from Milt Hinton about both photography and music, and their relationship to each other.

Timing Is Everything

Milt “The Judge” Hinton is often referred to as the “dean of jazz bassists.” Hinton basically codified what it means to be a “sideman,” a role in a band in which a musician must throw away their ego and act as a foundational support for the music. Sidemen provide this support primarily through self-control, having a good ear, and an even better sense of time. Like Duke Ellington said, it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing, and sidemen are responsible for providing swing. Judging by the sheer length of his career, his client list, and the raw sound of his music, Milt Hinton could swing the hell of out a band.

It’s not a stretch to imagine that this skill translated well to photography. Jazz critic Dan Morgenstern wrote, “Even the earliest photos… demonstrate [Milt Hinton’s] talent for composition within the frame, his skills as an observer, and his perfect sense of timing — the latter a gift surely akin to his mastery of jazz rhythm.” Just like playing that single note at the right time that fits the chord, harmonizes with the rest of the instruments, and gives the song meaning, so too do photographers click their shutters at the brief moment their subjects line themselves up, the background settles, and the scene achieves its one split-second of consummate poetry. In music, this phenomenon is called swing, taste, and pocket. In photography, this has famously been called “The Decisive Moment.”

Of the many decisive moments that Milt Hinton captured, the one photo that stands out to me is a photo of singer, bandleader, and Hinton’s longtime boss, Cab Calloway. Charisma and energy defined Cab’s career and persona, and the entire swing era of jazz. This particular photo of Cab shows that energy, but in a more casual setting. Here, he seems to have given a little boy a trombone to play on a stoop, while the others kids and their guardian look on in amazement. Cab’s got a massive suit on along with his signature mile-wide smile and looks back at everyone else, delighted. 

Hinton manages to capture perfectly the joy Cab brought to everyone, as well as his unique propensity to let others shine, both in his band and in life. The perfection in Hinton’s craft shows when we look at the eyelines, the subject placement, even the facial expressions. Call it whatever you want – perfect timing, pocket, capturing the decisive moment – but Hinton had it, and it’s what all great photographers and musicians need.

All Artists Are People First

Great artists often seem superhuman. People like Da Vinci, Coltrane, and Shakespeare occupy a rarified air in our society. It’s easy to understand why; their influence is quite literally immeasurable and without them our world would not be the same. If given the opportunity to meet these figures, I’m sure many of us would be dumbfounded and starstruck. I know I’d be.

But point-of-view is a funny thing, especially in photography. Even the most vaunted subject can be made to look ordinary, and conversely the most commonplace scene can be made to look holy. Milt Hinton understood this and used it as a major theme in his work. He worked with legendary musicians like Cab Calloway, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday, but considered them his friends. Of these subjects, Hinton says, “…I took pictures so I could show my family and friends that I’d really been to all those places and knew all those people. Several years later, the guys I was traveling with became my friends and I shot things we all experienced so we could share them later.”

I find Hinton’s most poignant subject to be the great jazz trumpeter and bebop icon Dizzy Gillespie. Hinton knew Gillespie before he really became “Dizzy” to the general public; he knew him as a brash, young musician newly hired to be a trumpeter in Cab Calloway’s band. Both Hinton and Gillespie would tour all over the country by train and bus with Cab’s band, and the two got to know each other quite well. When the band had a residency at Harlem’s famous Cotton Club, both Gillespie and Hinton would go up to the roof in between gigs and practice radical, cutting edge soloing techniques together, techniques that would form the basis for a new style of jazz – bebop. For any jazz musician, this would be like hearing the sermon on the mount from Jesus himself. For Milt Hinton, this was part of the job, and a special moment shared with a friend.

It follows that Hinton’s many photographs of Dizzy Gillespie are unassuming and personal in nature. My favorite of these is a photo of Gillespie wrapped up in a winter coat and a hat, sleeping on tour. To any touring musician it’s a familiar scene, and a reassuring one. Touring is a tiring business and makes a vagabond out of any and every musician, if only for a while. A simple photo like this shows that even the most brilliant among us lived a life like ours. For a moment it can even give us hope that we can reach those heights ourselves.

Your Work Is More Powerful Than You Might Realize

A corollary to the last point – artists are people too, but they rarely know exactly how important they can be to others. After doing something for a long while, even the most fantastic feats can look commonplace. Artists then tend to forget that their audience doesn’t see this sausage being made. To at least a large portion of the audience, artists may as well be magicians, and that comes with a certain kind of power and responsibility.

Milt Hinton knew how important his personal archive of jazz history was, but it took the gratefulness of a fan to remind him of how important that work could be. Hinton travelled to the Soviet Union near the end of his career to give a couple of performances in an effort to foster the growth of jazz in the weakening nation. After a performance in Moscow, a young Russian jazz musician came up to him and announced he was a member of the mostly underground Lester Young Jazz Club in Moscow. The rest of the story is best told by Hinton himself.

From his autobiography, Bass Line – “I happened to be carrying a looseleaf portfolio with about thirty of my photographs in it. I knew I had a nice 11 x 14 portrait of Prez (Lester Young) which I’d taken back in the late fifties. I opened the case, slipped the picture out of its plastic sleeve, and handed it to him – just like that. In a way I startled myself because I almost never give away my prints. This guy took one look at what I’d given him and flipped. He stared at the picture for ten or fifteen seconds, shaking his head from side to side. There were tears in his eyes. Then he grabbed me and gave me a bear hug.”

Most of our portfolios and back catalogs probably don’t contain errant photographs of jazz legends, but it’s quite likely that nearly all of us have taken a photograph that’s important to someone. In the music world, there are a ton of songs that mean a lot to me that have been composed by friends of mine, and I try to remind them how important their work is especially when their chips are down. It’s easy to get down on your work and yourself if you’ve spent a lot of time with it; Milt Hinton’s story reminds us that our work is more valuable than we realize.

Listen and Observe; Don’t Exploit

Photographers (and writers) can be accused of being intrusive, searching for their narrative often at the subject’s expense. Though the greatest photographers take pains to avoid this –  Eugene Smith once famously said that he wanted to “fade into the wallpaper” – sometimes it’s unavoidable. Fortunately for Milt Hinton, he was never viewed as a professional photographer and was therefore free to observe musicians in their most natural state. This could’ve been exploited, but Hinton chose not to. His images are built upon the simple act of listening and observing with compassion, and for the purpose of lifting his subjects up.

In none of Milt Hinton’s photographs is there ever a sense of voyeurism or glamorization. His photographs of Dizzy sleeping on the train, of Cab Calloway having fun with the community, of Louis Armstrong sitting proudly next to his hotel recording rig, or even of the late Billie Holiday on her last recording session, never feel glamorous or grotesque. He lets the subjects speak for themselves and provide their own human beauty.

In the foreword to Milt Hinton’s autobiography Bass Line, jazz critic Dan Morgenstern describes perfectly the psyche of an artist like Milt by enumerating the skills that made him a legendary bassist and, inadvertently, a legendary photographer:

“A good bassist knows how to make the soloists sound better, and thus must be someone who can sublimate his ego for the cause. A good bassist must also be a good listener, able to discern the weaknesses as well as the strengths of the players he is there to support – in sum, a team player. It’s plausible, I think, that this professional perspective also became a personal point of view. In any case, Milt Hinton is a man who knows how to listen well, a man who observes and remembers, and who is compassionate.”

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Josh Solomon

Josh Solomon

Josh Solomon is a freelance writer and touring bassist living in Los Angeles. He has an affinity for all things analog. When not onstage, you can find him roaming around Southern California shooting film and humming a tune.

All stories by:Josh Solomon
9 comments
  • I can somewhat relate. I played the violin for 12 years (I am 21) and also I’ve been doing photography just as much, if not longer. I loved how you pointed out to listen and observe, not exploit. With this, you can get photos of the subject in the most natural state, which makes the photograph much better. This is hard for me, because I was always seen as the “Professional Photographer” in my group, even though I do it as a hobby. A lot of times my friends always freeze up when I try to take a photo of them even though I just want a candid photo. Which made me to snapshot a lot of the times, to get those natural photos(mainly because I suck at directing my friends into posing good poses). Which is why I am more into doing street photography than doing pictures of my friends and family (even though the latter one makes the memories)

    • It’s definitely tough! Not everybody’s used to having their picture taken, and capturing a candid photo does require a bit of skill. Listening and observing go a long way towards that, as well as developing trust and understanding with your subject(s). Thanks for reading, and keep playing music and taking photos!

  • Another musician/photographer was Ansel Adams.

  • Among my top passions are photography and hard bop jazz so I really enjoyed this piece. Thanks, Josh!

  • Touring. Fun, but hard. Like a 30hr train ride. I like the line about touring making a vagabond out of any and every musician.so very true. I rate Jaco, but that’s probably a bit of a cliche.

    • It’s hard, but it’s rewarding! And clichés often have some amount of truth to them – it just so happens that Jaco IS the truth.

  • What is Hinton shooting with in that first image? Maybe one of the Soviet Barnack offspring?

  • Amen to all this man. I am a drummer, songwriter/producer and a casual photophile indeed. I very much appreciated this appreciation. Another one that comes to mind is Mike McCreedy from Pearl Jam. A lot of their album photos are by him — all that stuff on Yield was him. Anyway, hello from up in Ojai – echo-magic.com is our spot up here, come visit!

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Josh Solomon

Josh Solomon

Josh Solomon is a freelance writer and touring bassist living in Los Angeles. He has an affinity for all things analog. When not onstage, you can find him roaming around Southern California shooting film and humming a tune.

All stories by:Josh Solomon