Arthur Elgort Talks Music, Memory, and Ansel, on the Release of His New Book of Photographs, Jazz
October 16, 2018 9:00 AM
Arthur Elgort has always been into jazz. “I’ve been a fan since I was 8 years old,” he says when we talk over the phone, “and I’m now 78 years old, so that’s a long time.” Long before he photographed Kate Moss astride an elephant in Nepal, and Stella Tennant hitting the pool in a skirtsuit and wellies, Elgort lounged about the bedroom that he shared with his brother in 1940s Brooklyn, listening to some combination of Sidney Bechet, Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, and Glenn Miller. That Elgort’s favorite musicians (Bechet and Armstrong) were black and his brother’s (Goodman and Miller) white was irrelevant. “We got the music,” he says. “It didn’t make a difference.”
A similar spirit governed the creation of Arthur Elgort: Jazz (Damiani), a fascinating new compendium of his portraits. “I had [the book] in mind for quite a while,” Elgort says, but the publishers he courted had little interest. “They said that jazz has no money in it,” he remembers with a sigh, adding, “Good things get thrown away because no one can afford them.” Lucky for us, though, Elgort is a patient man when it counts. The book eventually found a taker—a publishing house that “didn’t mind” indulging his passion project—and lo, Jazz will be available nationwide later this month. Staged or candid, in the studio or on the street, Elgort’s photographs of jazz musicians young, old, famous, and unknown are compelling proof of a lifelong obsession. Each frame crackles with his characteristic energy. “[Jazz players] are very kind of loose,” he says, “and I’m fast.”
Printed in glorious black and white, Jazz reads as both a tribute to the genre’s greats—people like Dizzy Gillespie, Dexter Gordon, and Dorothy Donegan, who were all dead by the millennium—and an introduction to their emerging successors: Wynton and Branford Marsalis, Roy Hargrove, Sam Newsome. Elgort’s lens was trained on an uncomfortable period of transition for jazz (the pictures in the book all date to between 1986 and 2002, when grunge, rock, and hip-hop were all jostling for the public’s attention), but it was not the photographer’s way to be maudlin about it. Elgort appreciates his power as an artist to immortalize his heroes; in 1990, he made the saxophonist Illinois Jacquet (who also features prominently in Jazz) the subject of a documentary called Texas Tenor: The Illinois Jacquet Story. “[Jacquet] wanted to be remembered,” Elgort says. “He said, ‘If I had a movie, they’ll know me forever.’ Because everybody kind of knows they’re going to die someday. So you’d like to leave something that’s yours.” Still, the capacity of Elgort’s art to withstand the march of time is imperfect, and he knows it. Decades later, the jazz landscape has changed yet again, and the generation that was once just breaking ground has become the new old guard. “Branford Marsalis is probably the best living saxophone player around,” Elgort reflects. “Now that [Dexter] is dead and Illinois is dead, all of a sudden Branford is the new star. And he’s a wonderful player. So it goes on.”
Watch Claire Foy Get In Touch With Her Wild Side
Today, Elgort remains a committed jazz fan, although, his taste has evolved to reach a bit further back (to the likes of Clifford Brown) and a bit further forward (to the likes of Pat Metheny). “In 78 years, you grow a little bit,” he says. He was once something of a musician himself—he played the trumpet—but since suffering a stroke in 2010, he has only really been able to do scales. “[Melody] hasn’t come back yet, and it may never come back. Maybe it’s gone. So I have to face that,” he says. On the bright side, however, “the photography hasn’t suffered much.” Elgort continues to take pictures every day—he is, in his words, “always practicing”—and arranges portraits of his daughter, Sophie, and sons, Warren and Ansel, whenever they come to visit. (“I have kids that are very good-looking, because of my wife, not me,” he says.)
Have his kids caught the jazz bug at all? “Yes, but they also like classical music and rock,” Elgort reports. “And they play the piano—Sophie plays very well. Ansel said he learned it on YouTube. I don’t even know how to get YouTube.” It does seem apropos that Ansel should know his way around a melody. Earlier this month, the 24-year-old actor was cast as Tony in Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner’s forthcoming adaptation of West Side Story, one of the greatest musicals ever written, and perhaps the greatest that includes so many nods to American jazz—the handwork of composer Leonard Bernstein. “It took [Spielberg] about a year, but finally he called Ansel up and said, ‘I thought about it, and you’re the one. You got the job,’ ” Elgort says. “So [Ansel] was lucky. And he feels lucky still.” It seems that good things come to Elgorts who wait.
Above, Arthur Elgort revisits a selection of pictures in Jazz that first appeared in Vogue.