Friday, December 11, 2015

Rebirth of the Cool: Discovering the Art of Robert James Campbell

Rebirth of the Cool: Discovering the Art of Robert James Campbell
Jessica Ferber
Powerhouse Books

Robert James Campbell was a photojournalist whose work appeared in the Village Voice and DownBeat among other publications. At the height of his photographic career Campbell captured the likes of The Modern Jazz Quartet, Philly Joe Jones, Wayne Shorter, The Staple Singers, Bill Monroe, Dave Brubeck, Count Basie, Lee Morgan, Bud Powell, Richie Havens, Chuck Berry, and more. He vigorously documented New York's jazz era, and its metamorphosis into the beat and folk movements although later in his life he was wrought by mental demons, financial hardship, and health failure, had to give up his passionate work at what should have been the prime years of his career, having succumbed to his deteriorating body and mind. He died homeless in Vermont in 2002. Jessica Ferber has been curator of Robert James Campbell's life and photography since her graduation from the University of Vermont in 2002.

In 2012, I came across her Kickstarter campaign for this project and joined in after looking at her video explaining this. Marc Myers, who does the award-winning blog, Jazzwax, did an interview with her which he put on his blog and endorsed the campaign, helping her reach her goal. This was an ambitious project, and while the original date for publication was not met, the wait for publication has been worth it. Marc Myers has written the introduction for this, while Jessica  details the circumstances that led her to work on the project related to Campbell's work. There is a lengthy introduction that includes Campbell's biography including his unfortunate last years This introductory portion of "The Rebirth of the Cool" is illustrated by a variety of pictures of Campbell and early prints of his work.

The core of this book is the wonderfully reproduced photography of Campbell. There is a mix of street photography (including lovers in a park, a touch football game near Cooper Union in New York City, chess players in Washington Square Park) along with a variety of jazz and folk performers from a variety of locations. Among the images are Bud Powell at a recording session for "The Return of Bud Powell," drummers Elvin Jones, Philly Joe Jones and Mel Lewis at a Gretsch drum battle at Birdland, Mississippi John Hurt on the steps outside the Gaslight Cafe (and there are also two wonderful performance shots of him), Son House and John Hammond Sr. smiling broadly and clasping each other's hands (I believe when House had signed his contract with Columbia Records), Chuck Berry at the Newport Jazz Festival (likely the Festival documented in the film "Jazz on a Summer's Day"), Wayne Shorter, Cecil McBee and Roy Haynes at Birdland, comedian Dick Gregory at the Village Gate, a couple of Flip Wilson portraits, and several of Myrlie Evers, shortly after the assassination of her husband Medgar.

I reiterate that the reproduction of the black and white images is superb and reveals the eye Campbell had. Arguably the finest book of music photography (and more) to come out in 2015 and would make a terrific Holiday gift. I know this is a book I will be returning to look at the images many more times.

As mentioned I was a Kickstarter Supporter of this project. There are some sample images on from this. It is also available from Barnes and Noble and other stores with official publication date of December 15.

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