The geography of jazz is hierarchical and evolutionary: New Orleans as Bethlehem and Jerusalem both, then up the river to Chicago, the conquest of New York (with special attention to Harlem), Kansas City and the apotheosis of swing, and so on. Boston tends not to get included as part of the so on. “Jazz Scene in Boston: Telling the Local Story” reminds us why it should. The show runs at the Museum of African American History through March 30, as does “Jazz Greats: Classic Photographs From the Bank of America Collection.”
“Jazz Scene” extends back to before World War II and into this century, with particular emphasis on the ’40s through ’80s. That period saw the flourishing of such clubs as Storyville, Paul’s Mall and the Jazz Workshop, Lennie’s, and Sandy’s. Those two were on the North Shore — examples of how extensive the scene was. Then there’s Wally’s, in the South End. Opened in 1947, it’s still going strong.
Some of the most famous moments in Boston jazz history were at non-jazz venues. Miles Davis chose the Kenmore Square club Kix to return to the bandstand in 1981 after five years spent in seclusion. Or there were the appearances by Duke Ellington at Symphony Hall and at the Elma Lewis Playhouse, in Franklin Park.
The most important element in a scene is the contribution its sons and daughters make to performing jazz. Ellington’s two greatest saxophonists, Johnny Hodges and Harry Carney, were boyhood friends in the South End. Boston’s been particularly generous behind the drum kit, with Alan Dawson, Tony Williams, Roy Haynes, and Terri Lyne Carrington.
The show’s curators are Rick Vacca and Chandra Harrington, with the assistance of museum staffers Cara Liasson and Shana Rochester. They’ve kept things lively and varied. One of the nicer touches is including a couple of round, club-size tables with chairs. Sit down and enjoy the music on the PA. Hey, there’s no cover or minimum.
As well as Boston has done by jazz, photography has done even better. Smoky clubs, high-contrast lighting, the gleam of brass, faces as camera-ready as those belonging to Miles and Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie: Jazz has been a photographer’s dream. Some of the best-known dreamers have included Herman Leonard, William Gottlieb, Milt Hinton (himself a splendid musician), William Claxton, Francis Wolff, Chuck Stewart.
Hinton, Gottlieb, and Stewart have work in “Jazz Greats.” If you think of the show as being like a classic postwar revue — Jazz in the Darkroom instead of Jazz at the Philharmonic — then Stewart is the headliner. Seven of the 33 photographs here are his. One of them, a 1964 portrait of Eric Dolphy, also appears in “Jazz Scene in Boston,” via a poster promoting a 1988 Jazz Coalition tribute concert.
Among the 16 photographers in the show are some famous ones you wouldn’t expect. Weegee, Lisette Model, Gordon Parks, and Antony Armstrong-Jones — better known as the Earl of Snowdon to those whose idea of aristocracy extends beyond Duke, Count, and that other Earl, Hines. (There’s a Stewart portrait of him, too.) Also unexpected is the presence of a pair of Barbara Morgan modern dance photos. Unexpected can be good, and that’s the case here. Their placement next to Aaron Siskind’s glorious image of a pair of Savoy Ballroom Lindy Hoppers nicely captures the spirit of things. And jazz, ever and always, is as much about spirit as sound.
It’s not that Frank Stewart (no relation to Chuck) planned to become a jazz photographer. Even if he had, he couldn’t have prepared himself better. His stepfather was the jazz pianist Phineas Newborn Jr. Stewart took his first photographs, using his mother’s box Brownie, at the 1963 March on Washington. He spent 15 years working with the artist Romare Bearden. In the mid-’70s, he was a roadie for Ahmad Jamal. One of the more marvelous photos in “The Sound of My Soul: Frank Stewart’s Life in Jazz” is a portrait of Jamal at the piano, with his glasses reflecting the keys. “Sound” runs through Dec. 13 at Harvard’s Ethelbert Cooper Gallery of African and African American Art.
Stewart, who’s been the official photographer for Jazz at Lincoln Center since its founding, has a restless eye. There are 75 photographs in the show and another 40+ in a slide show.
The variety of formats is impressive. Stewart is as open to visual experimentation as his subjects are to the musical variety. A few motifs stand out: using reflections, as with the Jamal portrait; doing interesting things with angles, a legacy, one assumes, of those years with Bearden, a master of collage; the influence of Roy DeCarava’s photographs. It’s most evident in separate portraits of the bassists Ron Carter, and Charnett Moffett. It’s amusing in “Knees and Horns,” from 2017, which winks at DeCarava’s famously sexy cover for Miles’s “Porgy and Bess.”
A very enjoyable video features Stewart being interviewed by the show’s curator, Ruth Fine. Not that any label says who she is — or how long the video lasts (close to an hour). Sometimes the absence of a label would be an improvement. Might the pianist identified as “Kurt Lutzie” be Kirk Lightsey? And in the jazz typo to end all jazz typos, Sonny Rollins — Sonny Rollins! — is identified in one of the slides as “Sonny Robinson.” You know, Sonny Robinson: He’s the guy who looks so much like Sonny Rollins. Now only if he played like him, too.
JAZZ SCENE IN BOSTON: Telling the Local Story
JAZZ GREATS: Classic Photographs From the Bank of America Collection
At Museum of African American History, 46 Joy St., through March 30. 617-725-0022, www.maah.org
THE SOUND OF MY SOUL: Frank Stewart’s Life in Jazz
At Ethelbert Cooper Gallery of African and African American Art, 102 Mount Auburn St., Cambridge, through Dec. 13. 617-496-5777, coopergallery.fas.harvard.eduMark Feeney can be reached at [email protected].