Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Nine bars with Nubar Alexanian

By Chet Williamson

In the introduction to his book Where Music Comes From, photographer Nubar Alexanian writes: “I’m not sure if you’re born with a musical ear or whether you develop one from your father constantly whistling into it. I can still see myself standing next to our old Magnavox Hi-Fi when I was eight years old.

“My father stood right next to me, keeping the beat with his finger and whistling the notes to Armenian songs. I ended up playing clarinet in an Armenian band with my cousin. I did my first solo gig when I was ten years old playing Armenian music in a night club in Worcester, Massachusetts.

Alexanian was born here in 1950. Continuing with his memories in the book of music he says, “For a first-generation family trying to transmit its culture to their children, music was essential. But I was a second-generation kid growing up in America. One rainy Saturday morning, I walked down Portland Street in Worcester and purchased a copy of Meet the Beatles.

“In my family, this was a dramatic decision, taken with some risk. My father, an engineer, was working a second job, but he came home early that day. He walked over to the Magnavox, took the Beatles off, and made it clear he never wanted to hear that in his house again.”

Alexanian attended Burncoat High School and says he didn't become passionate about photography until college. “In 1968 I entered Boston University. I was assigned three roommates. The four of us shared a three-room suite. The first, the son of a United States ambassador, smoked opium every night and carried on about how people didn’t like him. The second, an orthodox Jew with whom I shared a room, prayed with Tefillin every morning in front of our dorm window and wanted to be an opera star. The third, a tall bearded guy from Chicago named Charlie, mainly stayed alone in his room. The music coming from under that closed door sounded strange and formidable.

“After a few weeks, my hair was well on its way to my shoulders. I'd lie on Charlie’s floor listening to John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, and Pharoah Sanders. I don’t know how many copies of Kind of Blue we went through by the end of our sophomore year, but every note and nuance of that album is engraved in my musical memory. It was a long way from ‘Hava Nagila’ and ‘Never on Sunday’ duets with my cousin. Every so often Charlie and I would fly to Chicago on $29 student airfares and go to blues clubs. We’d sneak into the Newport Jazz Festival and sleep in the bushes. Jazz and the chaotic passions on campus during those times were my formative influences.

“But as I grew older, I noticed how much like my father I had become. To this day, before he begins a project, he turns to Armenian music. He always makes sure that music is in his immediate environment. So do I. Certainly our taste is different, but music is an indispensable part of our lives, and one day I found myself wondering why. I was standing in the gospel tent at the New Orleans jazz Festival in 1981 trying to photograph how music made me feel. What was it about Coltrane, Miles and Billie Holiday that I found so extraordinary? What made music such a powerful force?”

In the sixties, Alexanian attended Boston University during the Vietnam War-era. “I needed a way to understand what was going on without committing myself,” he said. “I picked up a camera. A camera lets you get close. You are photographing it. You are not committed. I left college after two years and started to take pictures, full time. I finished my degree at UMass a few years later.”


Today Alexanian is an internationally recognized documentary photographer whose work has appeared in LIFE, The New York Times Magazine, American Heritage, Audubon, GEO, The London Sunday Times, Premiere and others. David Friend, director of photography at LIFE magazine, said this about Alexanian’s work: “I can name only a small handful of photographers now plying their trade who share Nubar's passion (for his craft and his subjects) while at the same time retaining what amounts to an unswerving commitment to ‘pure photojournalism,’ a style of reportage in the finest documentary tradition.”

In addition to publishing a series of books featuring his photographs, Alexanian has presented numerous one-man exhibitions in the U.S. and Europe, and his work is held by museums and private collections worldwide, including Polaroid, the University of Arizona, and the Bibliothéque Nationale in Paris. In 1983 he was presented with a Fullbright Fellowship. For more than 25 years, Alexanian travelled to more than 30 countries focusing on long term personal projects. He is the co-founder of the Essex Photographic Workshop in Essex, Massachusetts. These days he directs and shoots films for Bose Corporation. He lives in Gloucester with his wife, Rebecca, and daughter, Abby Rose.

Alexanian’s first music book is Where Music Comes From. It was published in 1996 by Dewi Lewis Publication, Manchester, England. This work, his first major color project, explores what inspires the great musicians of our time, documenting the creative processes of musicians such as Wynton Marsalis, Philip Glass, Emmylou Harris, Paul Simon, and others. In 1997 it was chosen by the New York Public Library as one of the best and most inspirational books for young adults.


On its website, Bose Corporation wrote about Alexanian's Where Music Comes From, stating: “For five years, he accompanied more than 25 captivating music makers of our time on their travels and in their daily lives. The result is a passionate celebration of the creative souls and spirit behind the harmonies and melodies that sweeten our lives.”

Seiji Ozawa and Wynton Marsalis 

“Alexanian's photographs and interviews take you to Milan where Wynton Marsalis warms up in front of a bathroom mirror before a concert. They lead you to India with Philip Glass, immersing himself in the mystical roots of that ancient civilization, and to South Africa, where Joseph Shabalala absorbs the richness of his Zulu culture. Then they send you on a tour of the United States with Phish.”

Albert Murray 
Here is the publisher's description: “Photographer Nubar Alexanian's Where Music Comes From honors the transcendent nature of music and the gifted human beings inspired to make it. With strong, lyrical color images of the highest quality of reproduction and text derived from Alexanian's ongoing dialogue with his subjects, the book allows viewers to experience music as it is being created.”

Alexanian spent five years working on the project. He traveled around the world shadowing and photographing more than two dozen committed artists. He rode on the tour buses, hung out backstage, attended jam sessions and teaching seminars.

He immersed himself in their world. In the process, he got to know each artist as people as well as performers. As a result, Where Music Comes From is a document that makes manifest the spirit of their music.

Harmonica player Jr. Wells

The book features more than 100 photographs. Other musicians photographed in the book, include Aretha Franklin, Clarence “Frogman” Henry, The Mississippi Mass Choir, Marcus Roberts, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, and Jr. Wells, among others. The book also includes such gems as a handwritten composition by Marsalis called “Buddy Bolden.”

Art Farmer and Wynton Marsalis
Opposite a photo of Marsalis talking with his bandmates is the quote: “The foundation of both jazz and democracy is dialogue, learning to negotiate your own agenda within the group’s agenda. Jazz is like a good conversation. You have to listen to what others have to say if you’re going to make an intelligent contribution.”

“Ornette Coleman once told me: ‘Every living thing has something inside of it that does not want to die. Find out what this is and play that.'” -- Nubar Alexanian 

The follow-up to Where Music Comes From is JAZZ written by Wynton Marsalis and Alexanian. This, his fourth book, was published by Walker Creek Press in 2002. In its introduction the publishers state: “Jazz is a conversation between word and image, and between Wynton Marsalis, one of jazz’s most charismatic and gifted artists, and his audience. Using inspirational quotes taken from lectures and workshops, which he conducts all over the world, Marsalis’s philosophy is emphatic: jazz cannot exist without communication, truth, respect, self-control and wisdom.


"His appreciation of and reverence for each of these elements, combined with the lyrical images of award-winning photojournalist Nubar Alexanian, make this a compelling and inspirational view of America’s greatest music. For both Marsalis and Alexanian, jazz is a metaphor for the best kind of human interaction, and JAZZ illustrates all this beautifully.”

Music continues to inspire Alexanian’s photographic output, regardless of the focus. He says, “In places like Egypt, people were often entombed with instruments because they believed that music came from another world and having an instrument there would be essential. Humans everywhere have relied on music -- the medium created by the gods -- for dialogue. I understand why they believed this. Some music speaks to me so universally and powerfully, it does indeed seem otherworldly.”

This article was originally published in Jazzsphere.

Note: This is a work in progress. Comments, corrections, and suggestions are always welcome at: walnutharmonicas@gmail.com. Also see: www.worcestersongs.blogspot.com  Thank you.

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