The story behind an iconic photo of jazz-induced hysteria
October 29, 2014 6:24 PM   Subscribe

In 1951, photographer Bob Willoughby took a now-iconic photo of jazz saxophonist Big Jay McNeely and some fans in the clutch of the music during a concert at the Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles. In 2009, Marc Myers of JazzWax contacted Willoughby to discover the story behind the photo. "You could taste the energy in that air. To this day I have never seen or heard anything to match it."
posted by paleyellowwithorange (15 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
Black Flag had a sax player?

Great image.
posted by davebush at 6:58 PM on October 29, 2014 [2 favorites]

The photography on his website is fabulous...
posted by jim in austin at 7:18 PM on October 29, 2014 [2 favorites]

I love that picture. That's why I go shows.
posted by stinkfoot at 7:18 PM on October 29, 2014 [2 favorites]

He's a wild man - and still with us! Some Big Jay from the 50s:

Psycho Serenade
Nervous Man Nervous
posted by ryanshepard at 7:20 PM on October 29, 2014 [4 favorites]

Flashbulb. This is a little lightbulb-looking thing, filled with a zany, crazy, wooly, loopy line of something vaguely metallic. It has two little nubs at the end of its base, no screw threads here. This is photography. That is a bulb meant for a bayonet mount. Stick it in and twist.

Slide in the film holder, it's got a sheet of black and white film the size of a post-card. Pull out the dark-slide, the thing that keeps the film from fogging before you get the film holder into the camera, and shove it in the back-pocket of your jeans. Set the lens to f/32, guess the distance from Big Jay's transcendent face to your lens, and rack out the bellows to get it in what you think is focus. Put the finder to your face, a big wire-frame thing you look at through a smaller wire-frame thing. You hold the camera, something roughly the size and shape of a Thanksgiving cornucopia, to your face, one hand underneath, propping up the camera bed, the other holding the grip, in this case a dry-cell battery in a thin aluminum tube topped by a half-sphere of polished aluminum, the concave side of which is aimed at your subject, Big Jay, and in the middle of that half-sphere is the flashbulb. Waiting. Under your finger is the shutter release, a metal gizmo that looks like the plunger on a syringe machined from steel, that disappears into a woven fabric cord that is attached to a little metal nipple screwed into the shutter.

On this camera, the shutter is a doughnut-device that the lens sits in the middle of. It's job is to keep light away from the film until you want to take the picture, and then it flicks open and then closed in the amount of time you set. Generally one second to one five-hundredth of a second. You've got it set to 1/500th of a second, because why not? It can freeze motion at that speed, to an extent, and the flash will work at that setting with a Speed-Graphic's leaf shutter. It's a clockwork device, all brass gears and springs and piezoelectric crystals that you cock with a thumb even as you bring the camera to bear upon the subject.

The flash is wired to the shutter, right along with the cable release. The camera has another shutter, built into the back where the film is, but it can only work with the flash at 1/30th of a second. Tonight, here, we'll use the camera to it's fullest.

Push the plunger, trigger the shutter, which triggers the flash, it's clockwork striking the crystals, creating a brief, powerful electric pulse... and then opens a hairsbreadth later, while the flash bulb is in its full glory.

The flashbulb is a hermetically sealed glass sphere, filled with pure oxygen and a single magnesium filament that loops and loops and twists and squirms until it all but fills the tiny space. The current generated by the shutter creates enough electrical resistance in the magnesium filament to heat it to ignition - and it oxidizes rapidly, eagerly, shedding as much heat and especially light as it can in that one very small moment.

It glares off of the glasses of the pretty girl - In. The. Fourth. Fucking. Row. - that little bulb, it's reflector expecting a much narrower lens than the photographer used, so the corners are dark. But man, in that place, at that time, that little bulb showed everyone forever what we needed to know about Big Jay McNeely.

Grab the burnt-out bulb, but not with your hand! This was the '50s, every adult male had a white handkerchief in his back pocket, or a blue or red bandana if he was a cowboy or a Hells' Angel. Grab the bulb with the hankie, grimace as it seared the cotton and your fingertips a bit, drop it into your leather gadget bag, and reach for a fresh one to bayonet into place. Take the dark-slide from your back pocket*, send it home, take out the film holder and flip it around, take out the other dark slide, cock the shutter. Next photo.

(*Unless he was using a roll-film camera, in which case, he twisted a little metal knob, looking keenly at little arrows through a tiny red window until he saw them turn into a "2", tho this is not as romantic. It would still have used a sexy, sexy leaf shutter and flashbulb.)
posted by Slap*Happy at 7:26 PM on October 29, 2014 [25 favorites]

Wow, those photos look like church!
posted by droplet at 7:31 PM on October 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

I always thought that fan in the middle might have been Bo Hopkins, but it turns out he would have been just 9 years old at the time. Maybe Earl Holliman? Certainly feels like a vaguely familiar Hollywood face, from a Twilight Zone episode or something.
posted by stargell at 7:36 PM on October 29, 2014

a now-iconic photo of jazz saxophonist Big Jay McNeely and some fans in the clutch of the music

AKA the Three Stages of Orgasm
posted by Sangermaine at 7:42 PM on October 29, 2014 [2 favorites]

Thanks! I've had this photograph in my medicine cabinet for about twenty years, way before teh interwebs got kicking, and never really thought I could track it down much less hear the music. So happy right now.
posted by bird internet at 8:08 PM on October 29, 2014 [4 favorites]

Totally worth looking at all the links in this post. Crazy man, crazy.
posted by Catblack at 8:35 PM on October 29, 2014

Here's a video of McNeely playing Deacon's Hop, and I gotta tell ya, his playing really is affecting. He gets some great reactions out of the crowd.
posted by ob1quixote at 11:51 PM on October 29, 2014 [2 favorites]

I read a book about Coltrane years ago. It described how he had to do this kind of showmanship in his early days as a working R&B tenor sax player - the tenor sax player would have to "walk the bar" - and how much he hated doing it. McNeely seems like a better man for this kind of work....
posted by thelonius at 6:37 AM on October 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

Is it possible to play a chord on a sax?
posted by Clustercuss at 1:56 PM on October 30, 2014

Colin Stetson says "yes"
posted by Jon Mitchell at 4:09 PM on October 30, 2014

One of our favorite places to hang out is Viva Cantina: an oddball Mexican restaurant/roadhouse in Burbank near the Los Angeles Equestrian Center. Great place - caters mostly to older folks, but the drinks are strong, the food is just sufficiently good enough, and there's music just about every night. Cool vibes. Never a dull moment. Highly recommend going whenever Troy Walker is there.

One night a couple years ago, the last act of the evening was this older gentlemen who played sax. He was moving pretty slow and used a cane but once he sat down and started to play you just knew something was up - this guy had IT. Charismatic. Funny. Heck of a player and showman. f the restaurant hadn't had to close for the night, he would probably still be there chatting up the crowd.

It was Big Jay of course and even though his 85 year old body kept him off the floor and seated in a chair, he was still that guy in the photo from 1951. More people should have been there that night.
posted by quartzcity at 8:06 PM on November 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

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