Jazz is a multi-sensory art form; seeing jazz can be just as important as hearing it. That’s why Jim Marshall’s iconic photographs of Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Nina Simone, and other jazz stalwarts — which occupy the outer windows of an old three-story building across from the SFJAZZ Center — are so appealing. So appealing, in fact, that jazz musicians who perform in the SFJAZZ Center’s Joe Henderson Lab, from where they can spot Marshall’s images, play a little bit differently when they see them.
“Everyone comments on it,” Randall Kline, SFJAZZ Center founder and executive artistic director, tells SF Weekly. “A drummer will sit there and say, ‘Oh my God. I’m playing and there’s [Coltrane drummer] Elvin Jones looking over my shoulder. Isn’t that cool!’ A lot of drummers comment on the gods who are up there.
“We just had this young singer named Veronica Swift here,” Kline adds, “and she was doing a song and she said, ‘This is a song by my favorite singer of this particular thing, Anita O’Day, and there she is.’ And she pointed straight up there. That the photo is two rows up and looking down — what a cool thing that is. It’s this lovely context for everyone.”
SFJAZZ first exhibited Marshall’s images in 2016, choosing the acclaimed photographer Jim Goldberg to curate the outside collection. Since its opening in 2013, SFJAZZ has showcased jazz photos in the windows of the vacant San Francisco Unified School District building that’s across its street. Longtime jazz photographer Herman Leonard, who died in 2010, was the first featured artist. Marshall, who also died in 2010, is more broadly known for his rock ’n’ roll photos — Jimi Hendrix, Johnny Cash, and Carlos Santana are among his best-known subjects — but Marshall was also at the forefront of jazz photography. His black-and-white photos of jazz icons in their prime capture the intense creation that is jazz. Displaying them in a camel-colored brick building that echoes an older era — and that contrasts with the modern architecture of the SFJAZZ building — is a powerful and inspiring reminder of jazz’s roots and history.
“We like to think we’re looking forward with the music — the whole idea of building this place is to do things that encourage momentum — but having this reference point, particularly in black-and-white, is a lovely thing to see while you’re in the building,” Kline says. “And from that side of the street, you can see the reflection of all the photos in the building, and so there’s this double effect where the building looks painted in the photographs.”
SFJAZZ was originally supposed to display Marshall’s photos until May 2017, but the exhibit has been extended through at least July. Marshall took many of the Franklin Street photos in the Bay Area, as with the Coltrane image at Stanford. SFJAZZ contracted with Marshall’s estate on the display.
For jazz enthusiasts, the Franklin Street exhibit is a kind of Mount Rushmore, a place to look up and admire 24 people who gave everything they could to a music that’s one of America’s most original and influential art forms. Passersby who don’t know anything about jazz can still sense the art form’s foundations.
As much as anything, Marshall captured the faces of jazz. It wasn’t just about the music. It was about the people who played the saxophones, basses, pianos, trumpets, and other instruments. He photographed them on stage and off. Either way, the musicians felt at home with Marshall, and he with them. The image of a focused Elvin Jones is a good example.
“You see his personality,” says Kline, “and you can hear the music he’s making when you look at it.”