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Archive for the ‘In memoriam’

Roy DeCarava R.I.P.

November 28th, 2009

John Coltrane by Roy DeCarava      Catalog ©1983, Studio Museum in Harlem
The Sound I Saw

Roy DeCarava isn’t a photographer, he’s a composer.”
–Historian Nat Hentoff to me, 1988

Master photographer Roy DeCarava died last month. It took a while for me to find the photo of his that turned my world around, but here it is, as part of the Studio Museum in Harlem’s 1983 catalog for his one man show of jazz photographs that introduced me to his eye. Getting to meet Roy and Sherry DeCarava became a great bonus in my life.

Roy chronicled the New York African American experience with an unparalleled voice, as just a glance at any of his (currently out of print) monographs or a Google Image search clearly shows.

I was always interested in photography, but music had taken its place for more than 20 years in my life, when my photographer sister invited me to a show in 1983. I’d never been to the Studio Museum in Harlem, and had never heard of the photographer, but she didn’t ask often and it was great for us to spend some time together over a shared interest.

Immediately, this shot of John Coltrane hit me like a ball of lightning. For me, music photography had been an enlightening capture of a moment, a remembrance of a sound maybe I hadn’t heard. For the first time, in this kinetic image of Coltrane I felt the same way as when I listened. It was pure emotion, not a recording.

Obsessive I can sometimes be, and I tried in those pre-internet days to find out something about this man, an almost unknown jazz photographer. There was almost nothing, a few references to some out of print books. No one at any galleries I visited seemed to know anything. How could it be someone so great was so poorly chronicled. Finally, I turned up a copy of a monograph, patiently waited for the mail, cracked it open and saw… not too much jazz. Or, more precisely, jazz as it really was, a small part of the day to day experience of African Americans in the 1950s and 60s.

Photo of Roy DeCarava by Mitsu Yasukawa for the Los Angeles Times
Roy De Carava by Mitsu Yasukawa
For five years I hoped to learn more, and somehow or other, found that Roy lived in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn. In the process, I’d become friendly (and obsessed) with other jazz photographers like William Claxton who only had reverence for Roy’s work. I wrote and called repeatedly, mentioning my interest in helping getting the jazz photographs published in a book (even if I had to do it myself) and after months of quiet rejection, got an invitation to the DeCarava’s home. I found an artist and a scholar, proud of their accomplishments and their family, protective of Roy’s work, willing to entertain any ideas that could help spread the legacy in a way they felt appropriate. Declining the traditional methods of promotion and distribution they felt the photographs represented a great body of work that needed to be exposed in just the right way. Roy taught master printing at Hunter College in New York (who better? Check out his tones that often start at 60% gray) and could wait until his wishes were properly followed.

I wasn’t able to be helpful, spirited amateur that I was, but we stayed in touch sporadically over the years. I brought my wife to San Francisco for the traveling show curated by the Museum of Modern Art. We spoke last month on the phone, he sounded great.

Listen to Roy himself, interviewed by Charlie Rose, on the occasion of his Museum of Modern Art retrospective.

By the way, Roy’s jazz work was finally released with exactly the vision he saw for it. The museum catalog was named the same, but was just a hint of what was to be The Sound I  Saw, published by the Phaidon Press. Whatever you think of jazz, buy it. It sounds just right.

Bob Altshuler R.I.P.

September 22nd, 2007

Columbia Records label 1965

This is a personal remembrance of Bob Altshuler, the father of my close, deep friend Michael. But when he passed away last Monday the impact he had on me and my work came flooding back, and I figured that even though his work life was off point for this blog, his influence wasn’t.

Some background is necessary, since Bob’s infinite skill at his crafts make his personal presence almost untraceable in public records, with not even one picture of him online. As a result of his passions for jazz and blues Bob Altshuler had a front seat influence on the unparalleled American popular culture in the second half of the 20th century. An “exhilarating career” in the music business saw him working in publicity and public relations at Prestige, United Artists, and Atlantic Records before landing at Columbia Records (and eventually at parents CBS and Sony Records) in the mid 60s. The very few things I know he accomplished included giving the best name to one of the best records of one of the best musicians (Sonny Rollins’ “Saxophone Colossus”), writing the liner notes for Booker T. & the MG’s debut LP “Green Onions,” and the impossible feat of securing the world breakthrough moment for Bruce Springsteen by arranging the simultaneous cover stories for this virtually unknown artist on the covers of Time Magazine and Newsweek. Given my personal proclivities of the times, I was always impressed by his engineering the CBS signing of progressive oddities The Soft Machine.

Bob retired in the early 90s but still had one great act towards American culture in him. Our friend David Ramage brokered Bob an introduction to a friend at the Library of Congress. The meeting led to Bob donating his entire, rare, collection of 250,000 jazz and blues 78s to us (as David puts it), to the American people, to be preserved and shared forever. It was an incredible final public moment.

Fillmore East marquee 1969
Bob’s kindnesses towards me naturally started through his son, when in early 1969 he started giving us his weekly tickets to the Fillmore East in New York City. As the top Columbia Records publicity executive I guess his department bought a certain number, and somehow there were always three or four left over for us and our girlfriends. Completely aside from the fact that my convincing my parents to let this Long Island high school kid go into “the city” was a Herculean feat, the Fillmore had earned it’s reputation as one of the two hottest venues for live music in the world (the other being the other Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco) for a damn good reason. Just a quick look at the three act line-ups would tell you why. In this 3000 seat hall, even the lowest billing was an “A” act (I remember catching Albert King, Taj Mahal, The Allman Brothers, all as openers), and for $3.50-$5.50 that was an incredible buy, some would think impossible. Impossible for me, that’s for sure. I couldn’t afford those tickets, but with Bob on my side I got an instant personal education on the culture upheaval that had only been magazine articles for me.

Columbia Records’ legendary studio.
Columbia Records
The next fall I started college at Columbia University in “the City.” I was in pharmacy school (!) but music was always first in my head and instantly Bob was there again. He started inviting me to the showcases his acts had at clubs in New York (like Max’s Kansas City, Cafe Au Go Go, and coolest for a budding recording engineer like me, the converted church that was the legendary 30th Street Studios of Columbia Records. I almost (almost! I said) started to take for granted being in on the world debuts of artists like Weather Report, Nils Lofgren’s Grin, and Tom Waits.

But, as great as seeing all this music was, as much as cultural learning as I was getting, without realizing it, Bob had more in store for me. I was the son and grandson of pharmacists and scientists, and it was clear my life would be going in a scientific path. But, starting when I was eight years old and visited a local radio station, the magic of media and entertainment was tugging me in subterranean ways. One day Michael was visiting me at the college radio station (my civil war was already beginning, though it would end soon with science getting the smackdown) and took me downtown to his Dad’s midtown office at Columbia Records.

Oh wow! A record company. The record company in New York, the world! In the wake of the Beatles pop revolution, the record companies were ground zero for the action. And among the records in my way meager (12 LPs) collection the two labels looming the largest were Capitol (orange and yellow home of the Beatles and the Beach Boys) and Columbia (Bob Dylan, Big Brother & the Holding Company, Sly & the Family Stone). And here I was. It seemed quiet like a chapel or a library (it was a corporate office, after all, something I’d never been in before), but I didn’t really care, because as we were leaving Bob asked his secretary (they weren’t ‘assistants’ yet) to “open the closet.” Two metal doors were unlocked and Michael told me to take anything I liked. Huh? “Whatever you can hold.” I shyly walked out doubling my collection in a quick minute and thought I’d seen God or something. And the best was yet to come.

Columbia Records logo
A few weeks later on a snowy day, I was bored with school and walked back over to the architechtural wonder of CBS’ Black Rock headquarters alone. Not knowing any better I marched up to the zillion security guards and asked for Bob Altshuler; they called up, gave me a pass, and I took the elevator to the fifth floor and his secretary told me he was finishing a meeting and would be right with me. I couldn’t tell you what Bob and I said to each other, but somehow or other he sat me down on the couch in the back of his office and I quietly sat there while Bob did his work. It was ten years before I realized what a ridiculous, and enlightening, experience this was to have. Because for the next four years I went there over and over again and spent hours quietly observing a master at his craft, in a business that hadn’t really existed for me, a fan, ever before. He discussed the inside stories with me, throwing off penetrating analysis only his keen intuition could fathom. I only knew about the records themselves, but it hadn’t really occurred to me that actual humans had anything to do with the whole process, that there were any humans (other than the members in a band) making sure I was in love with the music.

And here I was, the pharmacists’ son, getting instant tutelage on the business I had no idea I was soon going to enter (I started my first company, a record company, the next year). And not just the music business (I met the legend John Hammond in his office, saw original album cover artwork for the first time, and heard negotiations for getting on the cover of Rolling Stone), but corporate business. Hell, he had a secretary, something I’d only seen in a movie.

Over the years, as I’ve been asked 1000 times how I got started in the media business, it always begins with those visits to Bob Altshuler’s office. He never once asked me why I was there, why I thought it was OK to barge in, or suggested that I leave. And he always opened the record cabinet as I left.

It didn’t really end well for us, I was too young, too ungrateful, and, despite the education he gave me, too stupid. When I graduated from college he offered help getting into the record business, where he knew I wanted to go. My pride made me shine him on, I was going to make it without any help from anyone (well, I was sure wrong on that count). He rightfully was put off, offended at the brush off of his sincere generosity. Over the years, as I eventually –slower than I might have– got going in media, we saw each other for seconds at a time, but never really talked until a decade after his retirement. It was my loss.

Bob Altshuler was a tough bird; you had to be to thrive in the cutthroat record industry of the mid-century. But, he recognized music passions like lovers connect across a room, and for me his insights, magnanimities, and patience have resonated for decades. He was an inadvertent mentor, one that wasn’t asked for or contemplated from either direction. But, nonetheless, a mentor who lived up to any definition of the being. I’ve tried to pay it forward for almost 40 years now, and I hope I’m scratching the surface. You’re missed Bob.