The Smokey Saxophone

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Portrait of Sonny Stitt Playing Saxophone in a smoky room (a photograph by Herman Leonard)
Portrait of Sonny Stitt Playing Saxophone in a smoky room (a photograph by Herman Leonard)

Edward “Sonny” Stitt, was an American jazz performer who rose to fame playing the tenor saxophone (after having played the alto saxophone early in his career) from 1945 to his death in 1982. He was one of the most documented artists of his generation having recorded over a hundred albums. Sonny’s music associated him with the biggest names in jazz such as Charlie Parker, Gene Ammons, and Miles Davis. Herman Leonard’s 1953 portrait of Sonny Stitt playing the saxophone is a graphic representation and immortalization of the passion, emotion and soul Sonny poured into his music.

“In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God.” John 1:1, regardless of personal religious beliefs, John 1:1 can be interpreted as a metaphor for the power of a sound. “All things came into being through him, and apart from him nothing came into being that has come into being.” John 1:3. There is no power behind nothingness; however, a thought, an intention, a word, a sound, a song, can greatly influence people’s emotions and actions. It is ideas that drive the world and it is with jazz that Sonny left his mark on the world. Herman Leonard’s portrait captures Sonny in the middle of creating what can be felt as a powerful piece of music. His eyes are shut, his body contorted away from the saxophone to allow his lungs to fill, diaphragm blowing air back out into the instrument, while his fingers expertly press down the keys Sonny needs to play a note. A master at work, there is no doubt over which pitch to hit with his lips or which keys to press, Sonny is one with his saxophone and there is no delay between playing the instrument and expressing himself. When looking at this picture there is no doubt that he is creating something beautiful and unbound by any forms of censorship or uncertainty, just pure passionate jazz.

Colour photography was commercially available since 1935 when the American company Kodak first introduced their “Kodachrome” product. Shooting the photograph in black and white was a choice made by the photographer. The result is a brilliant historical feel to the portrait; it freezes Sonny in time to play his jazz forever, immortalizing the artist in shades of gray. With darker shadows the viewer’s eye is drawn to light reflecting off of Sonny’s saxophone while the light on his face adds energy to the shot as it outlines the wrinkles around his lips, jaw, and eyebrows from the sheer focus involved in playing. White smoke looms over the frame and adds an air of relaxation and “cool”. A paper cup sits by the ashtray, perhaps holding ketchup to garnish a snack of fries consumed by those present before Sonny’s performance. Everything about the picture speaks unstifled and relaxed self-expression. This is a portrait of a man unburdened by anything beyond a love of music.

Finally we see that Sonny is playing into two microphones hanging before him. While the ashtray and paper cup might make it look as though he is playing at a restaurant or jazz bar of some kind, it is fair to assume he is at a private recording session with his producers. Herman might’ve caught Sonny playing one of his greatest hits in this shot, and with enough research one could even be able to find out exactly which song it was and listen to it today. However even without having heard Sonny’s album it is possible to imagine what it might resemble from the sheer energy behind his playing and the calm and “chilled” vibes of the room. The sombre and relaxed feel of the space tells the tale of a smooth, soothing jazz tune – a methodical drum and bass riff; while Sonny’s passionate, and empowered body language speaks of a strong piercing tenor saxophone solo leading the song.

One of the longest asked questions is “why are we here?” For many it is to leave behind a legacy, something greater than ourselves. We seek to fulfil this goal through our children hoping that they will be a better version of ourselves; through scientific discoveries to aid in the technological and spiritual advancements of our species; through our general impact on humanity, either through politics or business; and finally through art and expression, literature, music, artwork. Sonny Stitt was one of the greatest jazz artists of his generation, and Herman Leonard’s portrait immortalizes this man’s passion for music. Both men left behind something for future generations to learn from and to enjoy, something greater than them, a love of music.

 

Anonymous. Wikipedia – Color Photography. n.d. 10 March 2015 <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Color_photography#Color_film_since_the_1930s>.

—. Wikipedia – Sonny Stitt. n.d. 10 March 2015 <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sonny_Stitt>.

Crossway Bibles. Biblehub. n.d. 10 March 2015 <http://biblehub.com/john/1.htm>.

Jackson Fine Art. n.d. <http://www.jacksonfineart.com/herman-leonard-2352.html#>.

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