On Jazz, Bassists, and Expecting the Unexpected as Photographers

On Jazz, Bassists, and Expecting the Unexpected as Photographers

They say that the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry. As photographers, I'm sure many of you can relate to this sentiment as strongly as I do. I had an experience at an on-location shoot that reminded me how important it is to expect the unexpected as a photographer, which I would like to share with you.

Recently, I was contacted for a last-minute shoot at Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola, one of Manhattan's premier jazz venues. Dizzy's was presenting a centennial tribute show to legendary bassist Charles Mingus, and the show featured the Mingus Big Band. A journalist from an online magazine was going to be on hand to interview Boris Kozlov, the bass player, and reached out to me to see if I could photograph the event. As a jazz bassist myself, I was naturally thrilled for the opportunity and immediately said yes. Although the writer had nothing specific in mind, I suggested it would be great if, in addition to documenting the performance and interview, I could take some posed portraits of Boris with the Mingus bass, if he was amicable to the idea.

Bassists Mike Richmond, Boris Kozlov, and John Benitez at Dizzy's Club Coca Cola. Edited in Capture One Pro using a Film Simulation by Dehancer.

Having less than 24 hours notice to prepare and realizing that there would be a limited time frame for portraits (we figured between 30 and 45 minutes), I brought two Joe McNally Ezboxes and two Canon 600EX II-RT Speedlites, as I reasoned it would be the best and most portable way to get the job done. I didn’t want to deal with cables and the time it takes to set up strobes, plus I already knew that the stage would be crammed with instruments, stands, and amplifiers.

Bassist John Benitez. Edited in Capture One Pro using a Film Simulation by Dehancer.

The sound check ended at around 5:30pm, which was the time I arrived with my assistant. Our plan was to photograph Boris after the soundcheck and before the first set. That's when everything took a left turn. First, the soundcheck ran late, which ate up some of our time (this is common and I should have, but didn't expect it). But the real challenge was when I realized that instead of one bassist, there were three, and I was expected to take a group portrait of them and their basses. My original plan, which was about 45 minutes to photograph one bass player, went right out the window. Instead, I now had very little time to photograph three bassists, all crammed together on a small stage surrounded by wires, stands, and lingering musicians.

At this point, I had a small internal panic attack, as my best laid plans fell apart before m eyes. I was forced to rethink everything I was going to do, and for a second, my mind went completely blank! After a few moments, I settled my mind and thought through the situation to formulate a new plan. I knew I had to work fast, as the musicians were ready to take a much-needed break before the first set began.

Bassist Boris Kozlov. Edited in Capture One Pro using a Film Simulation by Dehancer.

I decided my best bet was to ditch the two-light setup I had planned on, as there was no time or space, and instead I used one flash and Ezbox. This would have to do for all three of them. Although I brought light stands, there was no room or time to set them up, so I had my assistant hold the modifier in as best a position as we could get to cover all three of the players. I set the flash to ETTL, threw a 24mm lens on my camera, found an ambient exposure, and started firing away as the bass trio played an impromptu tune together. After about five minutes, we wrapped up the group shots, and I asked each of them if they would give me a few more minutes of their time to pose for individual portraits, which they all graciously agreed to do. The entire shoot lasted roughly ten minutes.

Bassist Mike Richmond. Edited in Capture One Pro using a Film Simulation by Dehancer.

I wanted to relay this story because I was reminded of how important it is to be ready for anything as a photographer. I expected a completely different situation, much more time, and in my mind, I planned for extraordinary results. In addition to everything else, I originally thought it would be dark out by the time we took the photos and imagined a bright New York skyline and rich stage lights as the background for the portraits. And, although I have mixed feelings about the photos I captured (mostly from a technical standpoint), I learned (actually, re-learned) a valuable lesson on being adaptable and calm under pressure and that when we are hired to do a job as photographers, we have to do whatever is needed to get the job done and make our client happy. 

It also dawned on me that being a photographer is very much like being a jazz musician. This might sound silly, so let me explain. In music, as in photography, no two rooms are alike. When I take my bass and amplifier to a gig, there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all approach to getting a good sound. Each room is sonically different, which means I need to change my amplifier settings, where I position the amp on the stage, and even how I physically play the bass. These variables will affect how good or bad the bass sounds. In other words, each space I perform in has fundamentally different properties, which I have to address quickly and adapt to.

The same is true for us as photographers, although we use light instead of sound as our medium. No two rooms are alike, no two faces are alike, so every location and subject presents a unique set of challenges that we must overcome to get the shot. And, just like jazz musicians, we must be able to improvise our way around ever changing conditions, sometimes with very little time allotted to get the job done.

Pete Coco's picture

Pete Coco is a portrait photographer and musician based in New York. When not performing as a jazz bassist, Pete can be found in his studio working with a wide range of clients, although is passion is creating unique portraits of other musicians and artists.

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I really appreciated this article! A great reminder of the importance of adaptability. The ability to improvise in both jazz and photography is huge.

Thanks for reading, Daniel!