PHOTOGRAPHER Skip Brown has a slight advantage when he's shooting jazz musicians: He is a tenor saxophonist.
"I know when a phrase is ending, when something's going to happen, and it helps," he says. "In shooting performances, so much of it is timing, getting the picture when something particular is happening. Because the light is often so bad in performance situations -- at Blues Alley, it's nice moody lighting for watching but horrible for taking pictures -- it helps to know when the musicians are going to pause for a second between phrases . . .and I grab it."
Several dozen jazz portraits by Brown are on display at the Jazz Gallery (2120 18th St. NW), the jazz collector's shop run by WPFW jazz personality Jeff Barr. Barr believes the people looking for the out-of-print or imported jazz albums he stocks are natural collectors of other jazz material. The show, mounted by Brown, includes a host of jazz stars, all photographed in the last 18 months at Washington-area performances. They include Zoot Sims, Clark Terry, Dizzy Gillespie, Chico Freeman, Miles Davis, Mel Torme, Freddie Hubbard, Dexter Gordon, the Marsalis Brothers, Betty Carter, Johnny Griffin, Ella Fitzgerald and local singer Jaime Broumas; the last is not quite as famous as the others, but since Brown often performs as part of Broumas' jazz group, in a way he's celebrating himself.
The jazz portraits started as a hobby for Brown, a free-lance photographer who does a variety of editorial work, mostly for magazines. "It's a meager living; I'm still getting it going. But the more I take pictures, the less I play; when I have a couple of weeks stretch without a lot of work, I starve but I sure get a lot of practicing done," he says.
Brown, a Hampton, Va., native, started out as a music major in college, then switched to photography, film and journalism; after graduation he got back into playing with the University of Maryland Jazz Ensemble under George Ross. So far, his shootings have taken place mostly in the dressing room and on the stage at Blues Alley and at the Kennedy Center's star-studded Kool Jazz Festival, a shutterbug's dream. While shooting, Brown seldom lets on that he's a musician, though he makes it clear he's a fan. "I just tell them I really dig their music, which is why I'm there, and that I want to add them to my collection of pictures. They're usually pretty amenable. Sometimes I come back when they come back; I gave Betty Carter a couple of pictures and she seemed extremely happy, got real nice, opened up, hung around and talked for a while."
Brown, who describes himself as "a pretty serious hobbyist when it comes to playing jazz ," senses an intangible tie-in between playing music and taking pictures. "Ansel Adams was a classical piano player, as was Paul Capignero. I'm trying to hold onto that connection. There are parallels between tones, sounds, rhythms and textures, patterns, visuals."
Brown compares a good shooting experience to an exhilarating musical solo. "You're always improvising, although you're working off of a set or structure, working off things that you know," he says. "Even playing a blues, you're grabbing from things that you have learned, but at the same time you're always a little on edge. You know what certain kinds of light will do to film, what kind of angles work in certain situations, but every situation is different, so you're never sure exactly what's going to happen. That's one of the things I like about it, there's always an element of surprise there."
Many of Brown's photos have ended up in the international jazz magazines -- downbeat, the Washington-based Jazz Times and the Japanese magazine, Swing Journal. "There's nothing like it Swing Journal in America, at least for photographers," Brown says. "The last thing I did for them was the Kool fest. I even wrote a story for them his first which was hilarious; it comes back and, of course, the whole thing's been translated into Japanese. Some friends of mine were making comments about how it needed a little tightening."
He also got the last shots of the late saxophonist Art Pepper at the Kool fest. " . . . one of the Swing Journal editors called from Japan in the middle of night, asked for every picture of Art Pepper. They run so many pictures; they're sort of the People magazine of jazz." Several of the book-thick Swing Journals are on display at the Jazz Gallery.
Despite the strength of his black-and-white jazz portraits, another dozen or so photos on display at the Gallery -- color shots of marsh landscapes from the Chesapeake Bay -- attest to Brown's greater passion. "I grew up right on the mouth of the Bay and I've spent a lot of time on the Eastern Shore and down-Bay. I just finished a slide show on it for the Maryland Science Center in Baltimore. These are pictures about the life and beauty of the salt marsh, which is a little different from what most people see. I'm working on a book to come out, hopefully, next year."