Classic Photo #1

Donald Byrd Takes the A Train, 1959, William Claxton

[An occasional series where I take time out from being self-obsessed about my own photography to highlight some of my favourite photographs from other people.]

Here we have jazz musician Donald Byrd, on the New York subway, the A train, sometime in 1959, photographed by William Claxton. It’s a mood-caught photo of a time and place, in this case, a 50s New York, where whites outnumber blacks on the subway (and where grafitti has yet to take hold). Like the woman on the left, in her glass-bottom prescription glasses, an advertising for Ruppert beer above her head (defunct since 1965). Her self-made dress, cheap fashionable handbag. A half-blind tenement girl hurtling through her barely understand life. Some moody hipster’s despised mother, smelling faintly of cabbage and sacrifice. And the man behind Byrd, leaning in, wearing a white, short sleeved shirt, a fedora with a fancy-patterned band-sash. There’s something of the stocky wise-ass about him, makes me think of Billy Wilder. His expression, though, is hard to read. Is he sceptical, unimpressed, thinking racist thoughts, or genuinely listening? You imagine a fat cigar in his unseen hand, a stogie. A man who complains a lot in a loud voice. These are immigrant faces of post-war New York.

Beyond them, a man in a dark suit sways at the hand poles, almost like he’s dancing. The stillness of Byrd, of the scene, is undermined here, by the implied sway of the carriage hurtling through the darkness of tunnels below ground. Byrd seems self-contained, cool even, but also maybe, hiding behind the trumpet, head and eyes cast down, a black man surrounded by white people, the photographer included, the two partially-hidden woman, the man irradiated by light, also maybe the people on the other side of the photo we can’t see. (It’s possible, too, that Byrd is just concentrated on the music).

The main focus of the photo is the trumpet itself, bright against Byrd’s nondescript dark suit, and his fingers, one stretched towards the slide ring below, three poised above the corresponding valve buttons. Caught like this it’s as if hands and trumpet have been fused as one instrument. We can hear the music. Cool blue tones, meditative, improvised, traveling through the carriage, mixed with the noise of the train, carriages shunting round curves, the metallic scree of wheels against tracks, rushed air and velocity filling the carriage. The pressure in people’s ears. The music from the trumpet like a dream they’re having in the time-caught underworld of the subway. Even sour-faced Billy Wilder is made quiet by it.

It’s a photograph, then, of stillness and movement, of black and white, old and new. A nuclear-age photo. Old certainties atomised, be-bop fragmentation in the air. Everyone in the dark, hurting towards the future, towards the quantum truth at the heart of wave-partical duality, that light, having the properties of both a wave and a particle, is still and moving at the same time. Just like everyone here in this photograph. Still and moving. Alive and dead. (Photography is captured light after all).

Claxton specialised in jazz musicians, once going so far as to declare photography ‘jazz for the eye‘. He photographs Byrd on the A train. Hardly a coincidence. Take the A Train being one of Duke Ellington’s most famous pieces, recorded in 1941 (the same year Walker Evans photographed people on the same subway). Maybe Byrd is playing a version of this? Is it an allusion, a passing of the baton to a new generation, a bebop hijack of jazz tradition, taking the A train to the future? Maybe, but the world around him, in this carriage at least, looks pretty unimpressed. Byrd a picture of lonely introspection. It’s a premonition then, of the fate of jazz music to come. Locked into its own self-referential trajectory. The A train to the end of the line. And, as the real Billy Wilder once wrote (in Double Indemnity), the last stop at the end of the line, is the cemetery.


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