Currently in the lobby of Santa Clara University’s (SCU) de Saisset Museum is a standing microphone with a cherry red curtain in the background to welcome visitors to “Jazz Greats: Classic Photographs from the Bank of America Collection.” According to the museum’s website, this exhibition of 34 photographs, on view through June 16, depicts “many well-known performers from the uniquely American art forms of jazz and modern dance as well as the diverse audiences who supported and celebrated these new styles of performance.” Famous jazz artists who are in the photographs include Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, John Coltrane and Dizzy Gillespie and a number of other influential Black musicians who helped shape music history.
Distinguishing this exhibition from others are the music playing from a record player and comfortable seats that allow visitors to imagine they have been transported to a jazz club.
“We wanted to capture the atmosphere of a jazz club or jazz lounge and create an environment where visitors would want to take time, rest and enjoy the exhibition,” said Lauren Baines, Assistant Director of the de Saisset Museum. “From the beginning, we knew we wanted music playing in the galleries to bring the photographs to life, and the record player we selected was the perfect touch. The moments captured in these photographs are so vibrant and nuanced and we wanted visitors to be immersed in a world of jazz.”
Baines noted that the selected records correlate with the musicians shown in the exhibition and the eras and years of the photographs they’re seen in. To form this special playlist, the museum had consulted with Josh Reed, Director of the Jazz Program in SCU’s Department of Music.
Music from records in the playlist included Duke Ellington and Nick Kenny’s upbeat “Drop Me Off in Harlem,” Louis Armstrong’s dreamy “Moon River,” John Coltrane’s soaring “Blue Train” and Miles Davis soothing “Flamenco Stretches.” Certainly, the playlist and the seating in the galleries enhance the viewing experience so a visitor can slowly and pleasantly take in the art around them.
The exhibited photographs are from the 1920s to the 1980s and mostly show the artists either in performance or portrait settings. According to Baines, photographers whose work are shown here include Arthur H. Felling (Weegee), William Gottlieb and Chuck Stewart.
“Audiences have been blown away by the photographers and musicians represented in this exhibition,” Baines said. “A candid behind-the-scenes image by Milton J. Hinton captures Louis Armstrong with a beaming smile in a hotel room in Seattle while he tends to several record players. As a musician himself, Hinton had access to both public and private scenes with these jazz icons. Gordon Parks’ ‘Music- That Lordly Power’ (1993) is a powerful, yet quiet work that evokes the sensual nature of music, but hints at struggle and perseverance as well. A work by William Gottlieb provides insight into the admiration between performers as Ella Fitzgerald sings with eyes closed into the microphone as Dizzy Gillespie gazes in her direction. What’s also lovely are the images of the exuberant audiences who are being swept away by the music.”
According to Baines, not only has this exhibition has allowed the museum to recognize jazz history, it has also paved the way for dialogue regarding civil rights and race relations to occur through the museum’s public programs.
The de Saisset Museum is on the SCU campus, adjacent to the Mission Church. Visit scu.edu/desaisset for details about museum hours and directions.