In the iconic portrait of John Coltrane for the cover of his seminal 1957 album “Blue Train,” Coltrane stands silhouetted in deep cerulean blue against a dark background and appears to be sucking on a reed for his saxophone. But flipping through the original, unfiltered photograph it’s revealed that Coltrane was actually sucking on a lollipop. That iconic image — along with the more than 30,000 he would take in the 1950s and 60s — was photographed by the legendary Blue Note records photographer Francis Wolff.
This year Blue Note Records celebrates its 75th anniversary, and along with it the celebrated career of jazz photographer Francis Wolff who almost single-handedly defined the aesthetic and cool of a record label and its generation of jazz greats in their heyday. Musicians like John Coltrane, Herbie Hancock, Art Blakey, Hank Mobley, Wayne Shorter, Miles Davis and dozens of others, all illuminated in Wolff’s signature style of one source of light that fell across their profiles so sharply that everything else — save for their instruments and the sweat on their cheeks — fell into shadow.
Born in Berlin in 1907, Wolff’s teenage years were spent honing his two great loves: jazz and photography. He would later escape Nazi-occupied Germany, set sail for New York and reunite with his longtime friend and Blue Note Records co-founder Alfred Lion. Though the early years of the business were not without struggle, the two formed a creative collaboration that would steward jazz and the record label through several decades of ups and downs. In his 1995 biography, “Blue Note Jazz Photography Of Francis Wolff,” bibliographer Michael Cuscuna, along with authors Charlie Lourie and Oscar Schnider, noted that Wolff’s intense desire to capture a specific shot often got in the way of musicians during the recording sessions. His intense love for jazz music was matched only by his consistent input over the presentation of the music itself: from the photographs to the packaging of the album.
In 2009, the publisher Jazzprezzo published “A History of Blue Note Records In Photographs” to celebrate the then 70th anniversary of Blue Note, and documented the journey of the label through the photographs of Wolff and fellow jazz photographer Jimmy Katz.