Kent-born freelance jazz photographer Brian O'Connor emphasises that his rich portfolio of jazz legends and events has largely been thanks to the right timing and connections from the start. Limitations and customs of the '40s and '50s sparked initial interests in still pictures and jazz standards of the Great American Songbook. He recounts the opportunistic era of being in London when ‘eventually the world came here’ allowing him to capture in real time for posterity the best of the American influence.
|Interview date||8th December 2016|
|Interview source||National Jazz Archive|
|Image source credit|
|Image source URL|
Interviewer: Okay, so if we could just start the interview then with you stating your name and spelling your name for me please.
Brian: The name’s Brian O’Connor: that’s B-R-I-A-N, and then it’s O-‘-C-O-N-N-O-R.
Interviewer: Thank you. And could you tell me your date of birth and where you were born?
Brian: 30th August, 1942 in Beckenham, Kent.
Interviewer: Thank you. And could you just explain to me then your early background in music, how you got into jazz and were your parents into music?
Brian: I was born in an era when literally there was always someone in the family who played the piano and in my case it was my mother. She was not musically inclined at all but could play the piano. It’s amazing, it was like that in those days because that was the main form of indoor entertainment. She could play the piano: I thought it was a sissy thing to do so I never bothered, to my eternal regret, and I never actually showed my appreciation of the fact that she could play the piano. So that was a big mistake on my part. But, so no, in general terms, not musical at all. But I don’t know why – who knows why someone becomes interested in something? – I in the early 1950s…you have to remember that it was very restricted in those days what you could listen to, not the multitude of channels and choices you’ve got now. And the BBC was also very restricted in what it put out. But it did put out one or two Latin American programmes and I don’t know why, but I was attracted to the rhythms. And that first got me interested in actually listening to music, not necessarily just what became the pop charts, although I did like a lot of what was pop in those days. And that generally progressed: I had a friend who actually had a record player and his father had a Sinatra collection. I think I’ve mentioned it in previous notes: they put on a record of That Old Black Magic sung by Sinatra and that got me hooked on what I got to know as being the Great American Songbook, which is an absolutely fantastic series of music. It’s incredible the tunes that were written during the ‘20s, ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s that have lasted forever. So I began to try and look out for that type of music: not very easy. But as things progressed, I met a chap in the early ‘60s called Stan Britt who was a member of the Sinatra Music Society so that opened the doors because they didn’t just like Sinatra, they went in for Bennett, Ella Fitzgerald, all the rest of them, then all the jazz stars, Stan Getz. It opened a whole box of tricks and that got me into the music including, of course, Latin America because at that time, Stan Getz the saxophonist and Charlie Byrd the guitarist came out with a beautiful album called Jazz Samba, which is still one of my favourite albums and it was recorded, actually, in a church. So, excellent stuff. And that was the start. [00:03:43]
Interviewer: How did you find yourself then getting into photography, and in particular photography of jazz artists?
Brian: Right, it happened quite slowly. Again, we didn’t have a lot of money in those days and I didn’t really have a decent camera but, rather like the music, I’d always liked, I took an interest in pictures, I like the still image. And, when I started work in the late ‘50s, I treated myself to a second hand camera – it cost £6, which was a week’s pay even second hand. Very, very basic camera by today’s standards but it was good from the point of view of discipline because it didn’t have an exposure meter, it only had a few shutter speeds but it was a great starting point. And it sort of went on from there. In the ‘60s, through the Sinatra Music Society and Stan Britt, I started going to jazz clubs. And then, as I learnt how to do a bit more and got a better camera, I started going with Stan to the jazz clubs and began taking pictures at the same time. What started out in about 1970 as a one off I’ve carried on now until today. Stan, unfortunately, has departed this mortal coil but for 20 years he interviewed a lot of the jazz artists so, of course, I went along with him to the interviews. Terrific stuff, met a lot of heroes. [00:05:17]
Interviewer: Is that the main way then that you made connections in the jazz world - through those interviews? Or did you go along to things on your own as well and just take pictures?
Brian: Both. I mean, it’s like all these things in the entertainment world, its connections. So if you upset somebody, you upset the world; if you please somebody, you please the world; if you manage to sort of just go under the radar, you get along without any problems and I think most of the time I’ve been sort of just under the radar. I haven’t stuck my head above the parapet too much. I’ve just carried away quietly and got to as many gigs as I can, photographed as many as I can and, you know, I’ve never really had that much trouble in getting permission to take the pictures.
Interviewer: Did you then favour certain venues over others? Did you have favourites which you would go to to do your work, or did you just travel around?
Brian: Well again, some people travel the world to photograph the jazz. Having been doing it for 45 years, eventually the world came here. They have all turned up sooner or later: you know everyone, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, the lot, they all eventually came over here and performed. And I was very lucky: the job I had, mainly in London, at the height of the American influence here, enabled me to take long lunch breaks. It was a different era then. And not only that, there were two or three big festivals at Alexandra Palace and that enabled me to photograph a lot there. There were a good few years where the photographic opportunities were excellent, particularly for the visiting Americans. So that was excellent. The one funny thing about Alexandra Palace, they had a festival there for two or three years running and I was working in London in Cannon Street and I said ‘the only thing that’s going to make me come into work tomorrow and not got to the festival is if the place burns down,’ and that was the year it burnt down. And I didn’t go. [Laughter] So I’ve never said anything like that since. [00:07:46]
Interviewer: Oh wow, did you find then, that a lot of your jazz photography over the years has been things that you’ve chosen to go to those places or was a lot of it in the end…has it changed in terms of people actually commissioning you?
Brian: No, being freelance…and genuinely not doing it for the money…Because I can tell you, if you take a commission and, dropping no names, and they say they’re going to pay you £X, you then spend the next year trying to get £X. So it’s not honestly worth the effort. It’s tended to be the fact that I choose who I photograph so that I don’t have to listen to music I don’t like. So I enjoy the music, enjoy taking the photography but I don’t have to go to groups that I don’t particularly like.
Interviewer: No, makes sense. And do you find that you do get credited for your work? So I know some photographers say that that’s changed a lot with the internet.
Brian: With the internet is hopeless. You still get photographers trying to put bans on this or bans on that or copyright across their photos and whatnot but, quite frankly, it’s a nightmare if you want to try and collect commission, it really is. I’ve had one or two pictures published even in national newspapers; you only find out about it afterwards and payment’s never been received. So what do I do? Spend the next six months ringing up a national newspaper saying ‘how about my £50?’ Drives you mad. So I had a full time job, which I could leave when I felt like it to take pictures. [Laughs] [00:09:21]
Interviewer: Makes sense. Was that then…over the years, has that always been your major jazz activity or have you been involved in jazz in other ways through the years?
Brian: No, to be honest, it’s taken up all the time… just taking, when you think that, say you’re photographing somebody in Brighton, you’ve got to get down there, you’ve got to take the pictures, you’ve got to come back, you’ve got to develop them, you’ve got to print them, you’ve got to file them, you’ve got to store them: by the time you’ve done all that - and made a cup of tea for Mrs. O’Connor! - there’s not a lot of time left to do much else in the way of jazz. If I hadn’t been doing that, I would have perhaps volunteered to do work in a jazz club.
Interviewer: And so…in terms of obviously you’ve said there’s been quite a few different barriers over the years to actually getting paid for your work and stuff so what has motivated you to keep doing it and to keep doing the jazz photography in particular?
Brian: I think there are still differences in men and women, basically. Men need a hobby and they don’t require, necessarily, payment for it. But most, a lot and particularly from my era, a lot of men…you just had an all-consuming hobby and that’s what it is. And you still get it today: I mean look at it, men in their sheds. It’s all that sort of silly stuff, it is a hobby. There was a bit in the paper yesterday: a chap has just spent the last three years, without even asking his wife’s permission, to build a flying plane in his back garden. You know not getting paid for it, it’s cost him £8,000, it’s a copy of a Spitfire, it’s actually airworthy and he can fly it, but he built it in his back garden without even asking his wife’s permission. It’s just what - it doesn’t matter what the hobby is, the ethos behind it is the same: whether you collect stamps, model railways, whatever. [00:11:24]
Interviewer: And is there a reason you stuck with jazz in particular and not branched into other areas of music?
Brian: I love it, well…most people who are not into jazz – and I keep saying this – who are not into jazz and say they don’t like it, have probably only heard one mad solo by one instrument and said ‘that’s it, I don’t want to know.’ It’s rather like me saying ‘I don’t like pop’ but then somebody saying ‘well, you like The Beatles’: yes, I do. So you can’t say, that really, that you don’t like a whole area of music. Jazz, don’t forget, can go from a solo, classical guitar, right through to a full orchestra, all stops in between. It can go from way out, to mellow, to whatever you want. It covers a lot of other genres, a lot of music has jazz origins. And, of course, the blues. A lot of people think ‘the blues, oh I don’t like the blues, it’s, it’s boring.’ Now, by today’s standards, probably a lot of early blues players do sound like that: but you want to hear current blues players. The music they’re doing is terrific. But – and then I get diversified onto another hobby – the popular media in this country does not really promote anything outside of a very narrow spectrum of music, whatever they say. You listen to our dear old BBC and where is the folk, the blues, the jazz, the Great American Songbook? Moira Stuart has a beautiful hour on Radio 2 at 11 o’clock on a Sunday night for one hour only. The rest of it is just a babble. [00:13:20]
Interviewer: Do you think that’s changed over time or is that something you think has always been an issue?
Brian: BBC’s always been bad at it. Thank God there are other networks on you know, on the internet that you can listen to specific types of music on. But then, a lot of people don’t broaden their outlook and they think that because I like jazz I’ve got a very narrow outlook on music: I haven’t. If you went through the collection there, you would see everything right through from classical through to whatever. A lot of it jazz influenced, obviously, and a lot of it pure jazz. But I could probably put CDs on there and you’d say ‘that’s not jazz’ and I’d say ‘well yes it is actually.’ People have, people outside the music have a very limited view of what jazz is and it’s a crying shame.
Interviewer: In terms of then of the way you’ve organised your activities over the years, you sort of said a bit that in the beginning you’d go to obviously the journalist stuff and then you’d take pictures and stuff like that: have you ever had to set things up in other ways? Can you just go to a club and take pictures? Or how have you organised your photography over the years?
Brian: Well, take Ronnie Scott’s for example: they had a policy of no photography. They allowed David Redfern and maybe one other photographer as their official photographers but again, thanks to Stan Britt, I used to go there regularly with him, we got to know the people on the door and they knew you were discreet. The guys used to reserve seats for us right at the front and they allowed me to take pictures and that went on for nearly 30 years. When the big changeover came at Ronnie Scott’s, when the influence of Ronnie Scott and Pete King went because, you know, they died, it’s been taken over. It’s run more along corporate lines now. It’s an excellent jazz club, but my memories are as what it was and I don’t want to spoil that. Nothing against the new club anyone who can keep a jazz club going in London deserves all the credit they get, but it’s a totally different set up there now. They’ve retained a lot of the same atmosphere and the same décor and whatnot but it’s just not the same for me. I had 30 good years, I’m not complaining, and I’ve got a lot of lovely photographs and memories from it. That’s the main thing and the other clubs - local clubs, small clubs, 606 clubs - it’s through getting in touch with the people who run it, Pizza Express, all that sort of thing. I’m not very good at making initial contacts. Some people have that knack, somebody like David Redfern and one or two others, they have no trouble making contacts and getting in. I always have a little bit of reticence about doing it because basically there’s a tendency for people to think you’re asking for freebies and I hate that sort of thing. But once you’ve made the approach, once you’re in, then I always make sure that I give my appreciation for the fact that I can do it and I’m allowed to do it. [00:16:53]
Interviewer: Have you, over the years, had any structures in place that have helped support your photography? It could be like something formal, like some sort of funding, or something informal, like supportive networks?
Brian: No. It’s cost me a fortune over the years basically. You bear in mind that in the years when I was going to Ronnie Scott’s I worked up in London, I didn’t finish, I worked in camera shops. I’ve always been associated with cameras for the majority of my working life. I would leave work about six, half past six. I would get back down here about half past seven, quarter to eight. Say hello, have a cup of tea, jump in the car, pick up a couple of friends, up to Ronnie Scott’s. Back here by about one o’clock, half past one in the morning and then up for work and back up to London. I did that for many years. So no, no support as such. It’s just not there. But as I said, it’s a hobby.
Interviewer: And actually I noticed on your website that in recent years you’ve had quite a few exhibitions on in different places. I just wondered how they came about: was that you approaching other people or did they approach you?
Brian: Mainly approaching other people. Especially at one or two places where I sort of take photos and they’ve got exhibition space because I’ve been fortunate that the places where I’ve had exhibitions, apart from one, I haven’t had to pay for the hire. I mean, I don’t know if you know, but hiring venues is an arm and a leg and if you’re only going to sell two pictures…you know, again, it’s a vanity trip. But most of the places, as I say, apart from one, they haven’t charged for the hire so it’s just been a logistical thing – which, again, costs a fortune: I mean you’ve got to frame the pictures, hang them. It’s a lot of work and costs a fortune. And again, you don’t sell a lot so again it’s a pure ego trip. [00:19:05]
Interviewer: I noticed as well that since 2002 I think it was, you’ve had the website as well set up, ‘Images of Jazz’. I just wondered what made you decide to put it online and has that, do you think, given you a wider audience for your work?
Brian: Yes. It’s not the be-all and end-all that people sometimes think the web is, particularly when you’re in a niche market but it does mean that you know, when you’re, say, asking someone if you can take photographs or trying to get permission or this, that and the other, you can give your website as a reference and they can see that you actually do take pictures and that some of them do come out.
Interviewer: Because I saw you’ve got quite a detailed website actually, quite a lot of information as well, so people can get to know you as well: I was wondering as well from having a look at that, have your subjects changed over the years as you’ve got more well-known or has it just changed naturally from your own interests?
Brian: …There are some people I’ve photographed over say a period of 20, 25 years so they’ve gone from beginners to sort of maturity but because of my natural reticence, I haven’t always been recognised in the way that perhaps somebody who is more outgoing would be. But now that is beginning to change and I do actually walk into now the occasional dressing room or backstage and that and I am now recognised and rarely thrown out, which is nice. But I don’t like getting too involved and interfering with the musicians. They’ve got a job to do; I’m a sort of an interloper so I try not to be too forward. I just make sure that I take the pictures and then I say ‘tatty bye, thanks for letting me do the job and everything.’ I don’t like interfering too much. I mean, they’ve just done two hours solid work and here you are saying ‘can you smile, please, for a group picture?’ You’ve got to be careful. [Laughs] [00:21:17]
Interviewer: Well with that in mind…because initially it must have been quite difficult to set things up so that you were able to do it: you discussed a bit about the ways you went around it so that you could take these pictures but have there been any other big barriers to your activities over the years as well?
Brian: Not generally. Jazz is one of those areas where, you know, if you play your cards correctly, people are quite helpful…very rarely do you get the huff and puff that surrounds a big star in other fields. Even though they may be a big star in jazz, there’s rarely 50 bodyguards around them and all the hoo-ha that goes with that. They will either say ‘yes, you can come and photograph me’ or ‘no’ and if you go and photograph them, you go and meet them. They’re still approachable. There’s the odd exception but in many respects, they’re down to earth. What really gets you is that you can talk to a superb guitarist who is second to none just as you and I are sitting here and have a drink or whatever and then you go onto the radio or the television and you see some jumped up idiot who can play two chords being interviewed as if he’s the latest thing since sliced bread. And you’ve got these guys going round the country playing for £100 a night. It’s absolutely demeaning and it is such a shame.
Interviewer: Do you find then that a lot of them quite appreciate the fact that you take the photos of them and you take the time to do that to improve their profile? [00:23:02]
Brian: Some do, but in general terms, no. They don’t mind what you’re doing, but it’s not what they do. They perhaps don’t apply the same weight to it. I think the only thing that might now be slightly different in my favour – and this did happen to me a couple of weeks ago – a musician - I’ve got hundreds of photographs of him but he’s not in my book, I’ve had to leave so many out of the book and I don’t know why I left him out, I should have put him in – but he took one look at the book and he said ‘my God, this is great. It goes back 45 years. Look at this. Look at that.’ So I think I’m getting a bit of credit for it now actually being a worthwhile collection, rather than somebody who’s just taken a couple of quick snaps and then disappearing. Because even some of the people who are say earning perhaps a bit more money at it than I am as jazz photographers, they don’t go back 45 years. David Redfern was the last one who went back quite a long way. He started in the late ‘50s, early ‘60s and, of course, finished 4 years ago. But after that, I don’t think many can go back to ’71.
Interviewer: And have you found now you’re compiling it into a book, over the decades have you noticed your focus or what interests you in taking a photograph has changed or the sort of people you want as subjects changed?
Brian: No, very much the same mix. Obviously as some of the veterans drop out, you look for the replacements that maybe are in the same style or taking the music further. We all go on about the American greats and some of the British greats from the past but in actual fact there’s an awful lot of good musicians coming out and on the scene today. In fact, I tend to say one of the greatest things about jazz - no, one of the saddest things about jazz in actual fact, - is there’s more young players than there is in the audience. Some of the young men and women playing jazz are absolutely superb but their audience is all over 50 and it’s very, very sad. And again, a lot of that is media, lack of media exposure. Jazz and other types of music do not get on mainstream media. They don’t at all. Well, you can go on YouTube and see jazz, but again, if it’s not said to you on the mainstream media and your tastes are on other scenes, you’re not going to search it out on YouTube. You search out on YouTube what you like. So the fact that there are other types of music on YouTube, you’re not going to look for it. But if suddenly The X Factor started having decent singers and guitarists and all the rest of it on – not just jazz, I don’t just bang the drum for jazz – people may wake up to the fact that there are proper musicians about. [00:26:05]
Interviewer: And did you find that because you sort of talk about how you first got into music and jazz and it seemed like it was your peer group that was quite into it as well, so has that changed quite significantly? When you first started going to the clubs, was it quite a young audience, then, or was it a mixture?
Brian: Jazz had a brief bout of popularity in the ‘50s with traditional jazz. And then, of course - I don’t know what you know about the so-called different types of jazz - but trad jazz had a brief bout of popularity in the late ‘50s along with milk bars. After that – and, of course, that was for younger people – then, after that, jazz split into several different ways. And - beginning to lose the point here, but the audience then, yes, was quite young. However now, a lot of the audience, particularly for trad jazz, which is another branch of jazz in which I don’t take a lot of photographs, it’s the same people; they’re in their 50s and 60s. So what’s going to happen when they go? Don’t know. But even into mainstream jazz and the sort of jazz that I follow, in the audience, it’s very difficult to get a young audience - and it’s a great shame.
Interviewer: Do you yourself - because you sort of mentioned there that you have a particular area of jazz that you photograph a bit more – are there particular aspects of jazz that you focus on a bit more? So obviously you’ve got British jazz, American jazz, Dixieland.
Brian: Well, no. My choice for photography is basically what is termed mainstream, but that covers a broad spectrum. For example, I love guitarists. I love solo guitar, I love the acoustic guitar, I love the South American guitarists, Luiz Bonfá, people like that. They all play slightly different variations on the theme of jazz, even outside the so-called mainstream. But the standard, what people tend to think of as jazz is a standard quartet – piano, saxophone, bass and drums. That is the main menu. But there are so many side menus that, again, if you look at the website, you’ll see sort of examples of so many different types of music, from the solo guitarists right up to the big band. [00:28:52]
Interviewer: I’m not sure your thoughts on this, but would you say that at any point things like Rock and Roll and things - you mentioned The Beatles earlier – did they have an impact on jazz or your own interest?
Brian: No, don’t go me wrong, I liked The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and all the rest of it, but I never bought their records: that was for partying, although The Rolling Stones did tend to lead you a bit towards the blues. So no, I had no objection to that, that was great fun in those days. But for my record collection, I didn’t buy them: that was the difference. But yeah, I still like The Beatles, particularly - showing one’s age – when you hear some of the stuff that is available now. Because, let’s face it, popular music, up until very recently, just used to be simple little tunes, simple little melodies, you know, in the main, quite happy little ditties. But now, - and showing my age - it’s just one horrendous, thumping, monotonous beat. No melody, no harmony, no tune. Nothing. And what an earth do you do with it? So I know that makes me show my age but put it like this: I actually thought that when punk rock first started that that wouldn’t last two minutes. First big mistake. I thought that when reggae started it sounded to me like a lot of blokes shovelling dirt at a graveyard, a really monotonous rhythm. But even that is melodic now in comparison to stuff we hear - in the pop world. I mean, when you think that reggae supplanted the calypso - and the calypso is a lovely rhythm from the Caribbean. But reggae is just, I don’t know, to me it is people shovelling earth from a grave. But that’s another story. [00:30:57]
Interviewer: Again, I’m not sure if this really applied or not but more back in the past more than anything else, would you say that jazz, because it was always so diverse, did it have an impact on your friendship group or people you knew in terms of their attitudes towards things like race and crossing borders and things like that?
Brian: That actually never really entered into it because, again, when everybody else is listening to The Beatles and you’re listening to jazz, your group of friends becomes rather selective in that area. So although I had friends in other areas, there was also a group that I associated with through jazz. In fact, one time there used to be about six, seven or eight of us that used to be in the group that went up to Ronnie Scott’s once a week, so we were all sort of in that same area of musical appreciation. But the thorny issue of bringing race and that into everything, no, it didn’t even enter into it. I mean…most of my, a lot of my early American heroes, that I then actually got to meet, like Dexter Gordon…To actually sit down with Count Basie in his hotel room while he’s having breakfast, you know. What’s race? What’s a colour? Nothing to do with it, you’re just sitting in front of a hero. Terrific. I mean, Count Basie was amazing: he could remember everything about his music except the names of anybody he was playing with. You know, incredible. Dexter Gordon, I don’t know if you saw it, he’s the one in the middle up there.
Interviewer: Oh wow.
Brian: Actually…I ducked out of work at midday one day and didn’t get back until late, totally drunk, because of drinking with Dexter Gordon! Now you can’t…knock that. It was Dexter Gordon, Stan, me and a couple of others in a restaurant getting totally, you know. Fortunately, my work let me do that because they didn’t know. When you’re doing that, you don’t worry about…political things didn’t enter into anything and it’s a shame that everything now is politicised, genderized and all the rest of it. I mean a lot of my musical heroes are female singers. Love them. An awful lot of them. There’s a lot more female jazz singers than male. There are one or two excellent male ones – Mark Murphy, Kurt Elling and a few others like that – but on the female side, a whole lot. Not just the Ella Fitzgeralds and that, but an awful lot more and a lot still active today – so yeah. [00:33:58]
Interviewer: On that note again, I think I may already have the answer from that, but just in case because obviously: jazz, at times, has been quite linked to trade unions and CND [Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament] and stuff like that. Were you ever on the political side of jazz at all?
Brian: No, not all. Never. In fact, I wasn’t even aware that it had that involvement at the time. I think it had more involvement with the spirit world – drink. [Laughter] I mean, how on earth…I could combine three hobbies because I like the photography, I like the jazz and you could also sit there having a drink, so, you know. CND, no.
Interviewer: That’s fine, thank you. So if we move on, then, to the different way that people reacted to your involvement with jazz over the years: so have you found that your family are quite engaged with your jazz activities, be it your parents, your wife?
Brian: No, not at all. The wife, loosely, very occasionally managed to arm-lock her into attending a light gig, but in general terms, no, as far as the family’s concerned it’s been a solo venture…No, just not interested. Don’t forget, it’s combined with photography as well. So if you’re not interested in photography, there’s two hobbies there. And no, it relied on outside people. And I think that’s the same with a lot of other people. I mean, generally speaking, small jazz clubs are promoted in pubs etc. once a week, twice a week; they’re mainly run by volunteers. And there again, they’re volunteers who love the music, but they’re isolating their families. They’re not surrounded by families who are supporting them. They’re doing it because they want to. But no, it’s a bit of a solo thing as far as families are concerned, unless you’re lucky to be one of the Dankworths. Do you know of them – the Dankworth family? [00:36:10]
Interviewer: I don’t.
Brian: Okay. John Dankworth really was at the forefront of the British modern jazz movement in the late ‘40s, early ‘50s. There was the Johnny Dankworth Seven and he had a singer join him called Cleo Laine, who also became extremely famous throughout the years. And they got married and they were still married up until his death about three or four years ago. She eventually became a Dame, he was eventually knighted. They had a son and a daughter – Alec Dankworth and Jacqui Dankworth. She is a very well-respected singer, Jacqui Dankworth. Alec Dankworth is a very well-respected bass player and they have a daughter, Emily Dankworth, who is an absolutely superb singer. And I’ve got photographs going back to 1971 of the whole lot of them. So, yes, they have received family help. They also live at a place called Wavendon, near Milton Keynes, where they have a theatre. They built a small theatre in their back garden called the Allmusic Centre and they run concerts and gigs there – until, of course, John Dankworth died three or four years ago. But Cleo Laine’s still alive, doesn’t perform much now – she’s in her late 80s. But yeah, that’s a dynasty that’s done extremely well in the UK, and promoted jazz extremely well as well.
Interviewer: Have you had other people you’ve photographed over the years that you would say are particular highlights for you, or people you feel like particularly influenced jazz over the years? [00:38:09]
Brian: Yes. There’s people like Claire Martin, lovely singer. I first photographed her in the early ‘90s and she’s now right at the top of her form. Lovely singer and I’ve photographed her, well, for the last 25 years. And, you know, got the CDs, got the t-shirt. And the same with several others. You know, you suddenly find – again, I didn’t mean to – but you suddenly find that there are so many musicians where when I look at my back catalogue, I’ve been photographing them over a period of 10, 15, 20, 25 years in the case of some of them. So yes, they have an influence.
Interviewer: And just then, you’ve kind of alluded to it a bit throughout but would you say, then, that your activities are always…would you say you’ve ever been professional or have you been more on the semi-professional side?
Brian: Oh no, I mean I’m not professional. I like to think that the results are. Don’t forget: you have to earn money to be called a professional; I think I do everything regarding photography except that bit! [Laughter] But in a way, it’s better than being a struggling professional photographer. David Redfern, who I’ve referred to previously, struggled for years before making it. I couldn’t do that. I wanted more security from a job that paid a weekly income. He had the guts not to do that. But I like to think my photographs match up to his and the others in the field. You know, it’s just that I haven’t been able to capitalise that into earning money.
Interviewer: and then finally, then, moving on to looking more to the future and long term contributions. Obviously it’s been 45 years now of the photography: would you say that you’ve got any particular moments that you would say you’re particularly proud of, or any big achievements from that time that you would name? [00:40:17]
Brian: Difficult to say. It depends how you look on achievement. For example, you could say that a couple of years ago the big jazz festival for once in the South East of England called the Love Supreme Festival near the Glyndebourne opera house - in fact, right next to the opera house, which probably scared the living daylights out of them - now they had a three day event. And I managed to last the whole three days from about 11 o’clock in the morning to nearly midnight - taking well over 1,000 photographs. Now you imagine the time taken to edit that down. And I did that three years running. I didn’t do it this year because, regrettably, like a lot of things, they watered the jazz content down a bit and, again, doing it for pleasure, I don’t have to go and see those that I don’t want to or those that I’ve seen many, many times before. So a little bit of a shame there. But that was quite an achievement and I’ve done that at several festivals. You know, they are horrendously long days. The Brecon Jazz Festival I did for quite a few years and that was a four day thing and, again, all day, for four days. And that was in the days of film where you then had to come back home and develop about 30 rolls of film. At least with digital now, providing you hit the equipment correctly and you know it doesn’t freeze, the editing side of it has been…quite…well, I wouldn’t say simplified, but it’s less time-consuming and you can work in daylight. As opposed to being in a dark room. [00:42:07]
Interviewer: Also, because obviously you’ve been doing this, again, over a period of time, is there anyone that you’re particularly happy or proud to have photographed?
Brian: Yeah: Dexter Gordon - will always be a hero. Art Blakey and Count Basie. Milt Jackson. The truly American greats, who were legends. To actually meet these guys was probably the summit of the achievement of, shall we say, meeting and greeting people. They were the tops of the game, they were the Americans. It was at a time when British jazz was perhaps not so noticeable. I mean, British jazz now is on a par with anyone: it was then, to a great extent, but the names were not promoted so well. But, so you know, you tended to concentrate on ‘gosh, these Americans are coming over!’ And to be able to meet them, that was terrific. That was a good period.
Interviewer: Is there anyone that you didn’t get the chance to photograph that you wish you could’ve?
Brian: Yes, several. Not quite jazz, but one was Bing Crosby. I ducked out of going thinking that I could do it later and he died the next day – never forgive him for that! So that wasn’t quite jazz but there have been several others…Now, this is where I get a name freeze…What was the name of the girl who died of a drug overdose recently? [00:44:00]
Interviewer: Amy Winehouse.
Brian: Yes. I hadn’t really heard of her and she was at Brecon and it was either a choice of photographing her or another jazz group that was on at the same time. And I chose the other group thinking ‘well, I don’t know her and she’s only young, she’ll be around a long time.’ And it’s such a shame because not only did she have a good voice but it was before she was covered in tattoos and all the rest of the rubbish that she did to herself. So that was a shame. I missed out there. Now, let me a think…it’s difficult to pick those out of the bag, but there are some others that I can’t think of at the moment. But yes, some that you just miss by a whisker or that I should have gone to and didn’t. Great shame. But yes, you do miss some.
Interviewer: And would you say that jazz has had a particular impact on British culture over the years? And also on your own life?
Brian: Jazz has had an enormous impact: don’t forget the jazz age in the ‘20s. The influence is more subtle now because, of course, the music is mainly hidden but don’t forget, a lot of the so-called musicians in the pop music that you hear today are jazz artists earning money going into other fields just to get the money. I could name one or two names but they probably wouldn’t relish it being recorded. But I mean they will earn £100 for a jazz gig and a few thousand for backing up some nonentity with a couple of notes. It’s a travesty. But it brings them money and good luck to them and a lot of them look upon it as their sort of pension fund to be able to do that. And then, of course, the other option for a lot of the musicians is that – you say I’m not a professional photographer, but a lot of musicians, they have to back up what they earn by teaching. A lot of them are teachers. [00:46:14]
Interviewer: and would you say, then, that if it wasn’t for you having that secure job at the same time that maybe you wouldn’t have had the freedom to do the photography?
Brian: I wouldn’t have had the courage to go…you’ve got to be a certain person to be able to have the courage to take the risk and do what you really want to do at the risk of having years of sheer poverty. So I took the easier route and have had years doing medium poverty… whilst doing it but never broke. I mean you’ve got to admit that a lot of people who really follow a dream, they do suffer initially. As I said, I think David Redfern, it was at least 10 years before he really began to get underway. So yeah, I couldn’t do that. So I had the relaxation of knowing I could do the photography without worrying about whether or not I ate.
Interviewer: That’s great, thank you. Then flipping that to the other side then just finally then: what would you say the future of your activities are, be it in photography or in other areas of jazz?
Brian: I’ll continue. I mean, I’m 74 now: I shall continue to plug away. I hope to reach 50 even if I only take one gig a year, just to say that I’ve done it each year. But if I manage to continue on until I get to that magic 50, then I’ll bring out a bigger book. I’ll just blow half the life’s savings on bringing out a really big tome to encapsulate all that I’ve done over the years and hope that it does please some people. And it is also a bit of a history of jazz in the UK.
Interviewer: Thank you very much, then.