Coloriz­ing a jazz mile­stone

Smithsonian Magazine - - Contents -

ON the Metropoli­tan JAN­UARY 18,1944,

Opera House rocked to a sound it had never heard be­fore. In the words of a re­porter in at­ten­dance, “a 10-piece all-star swing band . . . shook the au­gust walls with its hot licks and about 3,400 al­li­ga­tors”—jazz fans—“beat it out through ev­ery num­ber.” The Es­quire All-Amer­i­can Jazz Con­cert was a far cry from the venue’s usual fare. “Just pic­ture swing­ing shoul­ders, cat-calls, squeals, screech­ing whis­tles and a rhyth­mic tat­too of hands while Sir Thomas Beecham was con­duct­ing, say, Rigo­letto,” the re­porter wrote.

Ap­pear­ing that night 75 years ago were some of the great­est jazz mu­si­cians in his­tory. Benny Good­man played a num­ber live from Los An­ge­les via ra­dio link, while Louis Arm­strong, Bil­lie Hol­i­day and Mil­dred Bai­ley—pic­tured here—took the stage. Bai­ley, a fix­ture in New York’s hottest jazz clubs, is less well-re­mem­bered to­day than her con­tem­po­raries, but a poll of lead­ing mu­sic writ­ers around the time of the Opera House con­cert ranked her as the sec­ond-best fe­male jazz singer in the world, just be­hind Hol­i­day. Al­though no longer in per­fect health—she suf­fered from di­a­betes and had been hos­pi­tal­ized for pneu­mo­nia the pre­vi­ous year—Bai­ley still be­longed among the mu­si­cal elite, as her friends and fel­low stars Bing Crosby and Frank Si­na­tra rec­og­nized. At the Met, ”Mrs. Swing” thrilled the crowd with her sig­na­ture “Rockin’ Chair.”

Gjon Mili, the great Al­ba­nian-Amer­i­can pho­tog­ra­pher whose work was made fa­mous in Life mag­a­zine, cap­tured the event. One of Mili’s pho­to­graphs shows Bai­ley re­hears­ing back­stage, ac­com­pa­nied by Roy Eldridge on trum­pet and Jack Tea­gar­den on trom­bone. The orig­i­nal im­age (above) was shot in black-and-white; this new ver­sion has been created for Smith­so­nian by the dig­i­tal artist Ma­rina Amaral, who uses Pho­to­shop to add colors to his­tor­i­cal pic­tures. Amaral, 24, has col­orized hun­dreds of pho­to­graphs, with the aim of giv­ing a new per­spec­tive on the past.

Color af­fects hu­man be­ings in pow­er­ful ways. For at least 200 years sci­en­tists have pro­posed links be­tween dif­fer­ent colors and emo­tional re­sponses—for ex­am­ple, red elic­its feel­ings of ex­cite­ment, and blue, feel­ings of re­lax­ation. Re­cent stud­ies have sug­gested that we are acutely sen­si­tive to small vari­a­tions in the hues of oth­ers’ faces; ex­po­sure to dif­fer­ent colors has also been shown to af­fect our moods, choices, ap­petites and in­tel­lec­tual per­for­mance. Ex­actly why has not been ad­e­quately eval­u­ated. But the pop­u­lar re­sponse to work by Amaral and to projects such as Smith­so­nian Chan­nel’s Amer­ica in Color, which fea­tures col­orized film clips, shows that the tech­nique can deepen the con­nec­tion view­ers feel with his­tor­i­cal fig­ures and events.

“Coloriz­ing pho­to­graphs is a process that re­quires a com­bi­na­tion of care­ful fac­tual re­search and his­tor­i­cal imag­i­na­tion,” says Amaral, a for­mer in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions stu­dent who now works full­time on his­tor­i­cal im­ages from her home in Belo Hor­i­zonte, Brazil. Amaral is of­ten drawn to a photo by the small de­tails—like the ten­drils of smoke from an on­looker’s cig­a­rette—but says she al­ways looks for “an im­age that al­lows me to tell a broader story.” Here her main task was to cre­ate a new por­trait of Bai­ley that was sen­si­tive to her fam­ily her­itage, which was un­usual for the jazz scene at a time when many of the most fa­mous mu­si­cians were black. Bai­ley, by con­trast, was raised by her mother, a Couer d’Alene tribal mem­ber, on the Couer d’Alene reser­va­tion in Idaho, al­though Bai­ley was of­ten per­ceived as white in an era when Na­tive

Amer­i­cans suf­fered wide­spread dis­crim­i­na­tion. This made coloriz­ing a chal­lenge.

There are no known color pho­to­graphs of Bai­ley and the orig­i­nal im­age doesn’t pro­vide many clues, so Amaral looked for scraps of in­for­ma­tion in sources de­scrib­ing Bai­ley. She also turned to the color por­trait of Bai­ley done by Howard Koslow for a 1994 U.S. postage stamp, though that por­trait, also based on a black-and-white pho­to­graph, wasn’t con­clu­sive.

Amaral is care­ful to point out that her works are not about restora­tion, but about in­ter­pre­ta­tion. “They are as much about en­cour­ag­ing ques­tions about past events as de­pict­ing them ob­jec­tively.” What isn’t in doubt is the abil­ity of color to trans­form the way we un­der­stand even the most fa­mil­iar sights. As Bai­ley her­self once sang: “I used to be color-blind, but I met you and now I find there’s green in the grass, there’s gold in the moon, there’s blue in the skies.”

Amaral can of­ten find clues to in­form her col­oriza­tion (above) in the shades of gray in the orig­i­nal im­age (left).

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