The first time I saw Billy Kaye in 2017 was in New York. He looked like he had just come out of a movie set from 1950, wearing a fedora, beautiful suit and shirt. I felt a little shy when I approached him — he was 84 then, 5 feet 4 inches tall and one of the most respected jazz musicians still playing at that age, and here I was, this 5-foot-10 German woman with a funny accent asking him whether I could follow him around to document his life in the years to come.
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I explained to him how I had photographed several elderly jazz musicians in Washington. I told him how much I particularly love jazz of the 1930s to the ’50s — big band to bebop — and also the style of the era. But I said I was mostly interested in documenting how older jazz musicians get by today.
He gave me a gentle smile and said this could be arranged, a phrase he often uses.
As a boy, Billy, who was born in Wilson, N.C., in 1932, took piano lessons; he didn’t start playing drums until he enlisted in the Air Force, at age 17. He is entirely self-taught and has toured the world and shared the stage with such jazz greats as Count Basie, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk (with whom he played in Washington), George Benson, Lou Donaldson and Dinah Washington. Billie Holiday once cooked for him after he fell sick.
Drumming is a rigorous endeavor, but Billy, who competed in track and field in the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki, still regularly performs in New York, where he has lived for more than 70 years. He often hosts the Monday Night Jam at the Jazz Foundation of America, a nonprofit that assists struggling musicians, and he also plays at local retirement homes.
Of all the pictures I’ve taken of Billy, the one I think about the most is a detail shot of his right hand, which shows the thickness that has built up around his thumb from holding sticks most of his life. Evidence of continuity and conviction, of strength and survival.