Herb Snitzer has pointed his camera lens at some of the most notable jazz musicians of all time. I sat down with the St. Petersburg resident in the summer of 2011 to talk about life in New York during the jazz revolution, and to talk about life in Tampa Bay’s art scene. Read the full story below.
The Jazzman’s Memoir
St. Petersburg resident and renowned jazz photographer Herb Snitzer talks about his new book and exhibit at Tampa Museum of Art
There was no escaping the heat. The windows were down, but with no air conditioning, the June heat proved unbearable for Louis Armstrong and his band, which had stripped down to their shorts and T-shirts.
It may have been hot as hell on that bus, but Herb Snitzer, a 20-something-year-old Jewish kid from Philly, was in photojournalist heaven.
Just days earlier, he had talked his way into tagging along with the band on their weekend gigs throughout the northeast. Looking back, he has no idea if trombonist Trummy Young knew much about his photography, but for whatever reason, Young took Snitzer under his wing and introduced him to Armstrong, a.k.a. “Pops.”
They arranged to board the bus outside Armstrong’s home in Queens. Snitzer still remembers the address: 3456 117th Ave.
“I was quite nervous,” Snitzer writes in his book Jazz: A Visual Journey. “(Armstrong) loved to joke and that weekend was filled with humor, wisecracks, and some damn great music.”
That weekend also produced one of Snitzer’s most iconic images: a portrait of a dazed and confused Armstrong sporting an open button-down shirt and a Star of David necklace. The charm, Snitzer later learned, was a gift from the Karnofsky’s, a family of Russian Jewish immigrants who gave him odd jobs as a kid and later influenced his sound. Armstrong—not Jewish—was buried with it around his neck.
A St. Petersburg resident since 1992, Snitzer spent his post-college years touring New York City clubs and photographing jazz artists like Armstrong. It was a gritty city, Snitzer says, but livable for young artists.
“I figured I’d put myself up against the best,” he says.
The Korean War was finally over, Rosa Parks had just refused her seat on the bus and the city was buzzing from the sounds of this new underground small band jazz sensation. Throughout his years in the Big Apple, Snitzer formed bonds with some of the biggest names in the movement, including Nina Simone, Miles Davis, Thelonius Monk and Armstrong.
These bonds gave way to enough material for three books, including a new release called Glorious Days and Nights: A Jazz Memoir (which hit stores nationwide in February) and an exhibit at the Tampa Museum of Art. His photos have stood the test of time, giving jazz enthusiasts worldwide a visual essay of this unique period in which black musicians poured their souls into a rebellious form of raw, emotional music.
Snitzer arrives at the studio early most mornings and sifts through the boxes of negatives he kept over the years. The faded yellow and beige boxes are stacked one by one on a worn wooden shelf near the entrance to his studio, each filled with iconic images of jazz musicians from the ‘50s and ‘60s. Prints are stacked on an island in the middle of the room, and a massive poster from the last exhibit he had at the St. Petersburg Fine Arts Museum acts as a rug in the center of the room.
A first-generation American with Ukranian parents, Snitzer has a small tuft of facial hair and wispy salt and pepper hair. Dressed in khaki shorts and a T-shirt, his wardrobe has changed quite a bit since his days in the jazz clubs. Back then everyone wore a suit, especially media.
“Photography went from an elitist profession to blue collar,” he says.
His Nikon gets far less use these days, but Snitzer’s work is still finding its way into museums and onto bookshelves. Glorious Days and Nights: A Jazz Memoir features never-before released photos and first-person accounts of Snitzer’s encounters with several jazz greats. Many of his fellow photographers have passed away, making Snitzer one of the biggest names still alive from the jazz age.
Once a furniture designer, Snitzer says his career as a photographer was almost never born, until he took a photo assistant job with renowned photographer Arnold Newman making $45 a week.
“My heart was in making pictures,” he says.
Snitzer stayed with Newman for several months before venturing off on his own and freelancing for publications such as Fortune, Time, Life, Holiday, Red Book, New York Times, New York Herald Tribune and London Sunday Times. By age 26, he was the associate editor of the influential jazz magazine Metronome, where he shot hundreds of now-famous musicians.
He has long considered himself a street photographer. And although some of his archived photos showcase historic moments in US history, it’s the jazz photos that have earned him his credibility.
“I’ve been told that my jazz photos are photos that really tell the viewer a great deal about the subject,” he says. “They provide visual insight into the person that I happened to be photographing. I’m not so concerned about performance images. There are only so many pictures of saxophone players with a saxophone in their mouths. That doesn’t tell you anything about the person. I visually want to express something about the person who also happened to be a great person. I’m interested in the humanity of the person and for whatever reason I’ve been able to do that with my shots.”
So how does a white boy from Philly get in with some of the biggest names jazz may ever know? Snitzer credits his small size—which he says made him unassuming and non-threatening—and his passion for the sound. Color, he says, was never an issue. The musicians accepted him, and in turn, let him photograph them in and out of the clubs.
There was Snitzer watching Armstrong toke up while on tour. Nina Simone asking to use one of his photos for her album cover. Then there was the series of photos he took of Miles Davis, a revealing set of shots that show the talented musician deteriorating rapidly over the years from drug use.
Sure, the music was incredible. But what truly attracted Snitzer to these people was their excitement and collegiality. And it didn’t hurt that they let him witness their inner workings.
“I was seeing so many of (the musicians) in the clubs and at record dates that I became a part of the family,” Snitzer says.
It has been years since Snitzer was in NYC shooting his favorite musicians. He stopped freelancing in 1961 and took a headmaster position at a school in the Adirondack Mountains. He moved to Florida in the ‘90s because it was “cheap and warm.” These days, he doesn’t visit the clubs very much at all. Instead, he’s busy promoting his work and giving the country a few jazz history lessons.
The musicians from his generation have passed away, but he still stays in contact with a few, such as Clark Terry who used to play with Duke Ellington. Several years ago, he met up with Nina Simone for the first time in years. The two were close friends for a long time, and Snitzer gets emotional when he describes how Simone had forgotten much of their time together.
“In 1986, she was appearing in Boston and I went to the hotel where she was staying and reintroduced myself and it was really strange,” he says. “It was difficult getting together.”
It’s a memory he rarely talks about, but it’s another example of the encounters that Snitzer experienced during his time behind the lens. The jazz world has embraced his books, he says, and his latest sold several hundred copies within a first few months of its release.
He’s also starting a series of portfolios with prints he has made over years. The hand-numbered collection, dubbed “Such Sweet Thunder”, will be limited to 75 books of 10 prints and will sell for $5,000.
For a respected photographer with more than 50 years in the business, Snitzer hit his peak at a young age. And while it looks like he’ll spend his remaining years using these photos to keep alive those memories, Snitzer thinks his pictures will give readers a look into a time period where civil and racial unrest were droned out by this major breakthrough in jazz music.
“Their music was a metaphor for freedom,” he says. “Jazz talks about struggle and their music evolved out of this struggle.”