JS37: 16 bars with photographer Nubar Alexanian

“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

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 in the book with his early memories 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 played the clarinet as a child. “I took lessons until my teacher found out that I wasn’t really reading,” he says. “He’d show me the lesson. He’d play it and then I’d remember it. I’d go home and practice it based on what I heard. If the pieces got more complex with 16th notes and 32nd notes and I left them out, I got nabbed.”

Still he got proficient enough to play to perform publically. “When I was 10 years old I played at the Peacock Club in Auburn,” he recalls. “My parents brought me. I felt like a mascot. I went up and did my little song and my parents were really proud. I didn’t really love the clarinet. What I really wanted to do was to play the piano. Both my sisters played so there was no room. I work around people in music a lot. So I have a fairly good pair of ears.”

Alexanian attended Burncoat High School and says he didn’t become passionate about photography until college. “I left town in 1968 and went to Boston University. That was during the Vietnam War-era. I needed a way to understand what was going on without committing myself. 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.

In addition to publishing a series of books featuring his photographs (including two on music and one called Jazz), 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. His latest book is Nonfiction: Photographs by Nubar Alexanian from the film sets of Erroll Morris. It is a book about Abu Ghraib Prison.

For more than 25 years, Alexanian traveled 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.

Where Music Comes From was published in 1996 by Dewi Lewis Publication, Manchester, England. In 1997 it was chosen by the New York Public Library as one of the best and most inspirational books for young adults.

Continuing with his comments about college in the introduction of Where Music Comes From, Alexanian writes: “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.”

On its website, Bose Corporation wrote about 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.

“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.”

Some of the other musicians included in the book are Bela Fleck, Aretha Franklin, Clarence “Frogman” Henry, The Mississippi Mass Choir, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Paul Simon and Jr. Wells.

Alexanian says in the planning stages of the book, he started out wanting to do only three musicians. “I didn’t know where I was going. It was a very expensive project to do. Magazines in New York were interested in it but it was so huge nobody could pay for it. It probably cost like $12,000 to do one musician and there are like 25 different musicians in that book.

“I thought I’d start slowly and I wanted to start with Stevie Ray Vaughan, Leonard Bernstein and Miles Davis. They all died in the first year. So I thought, I shouldn’t even think about anybody for their own protection.”

Alexanian did think of others and soon gave the names of people he wanted to photograph to editors that he worked with in New York. “Life magazine hired me to shoot a bunch of them. I wanted to do known and unknown musicians. I wanted to describe the process of where the music came from. I never really understood how important it was to me until I did that book. Now it is very alive for me.”

In the introduction Alexanian admits that though he rebelled against tradition, he noticed how much, as he grew older, like his father he had become. “To this day, before he begins a project, he turns to Armenian music,” the photographer says of his dad. “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 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. It’s as if the greatest composers and performers are truly our intermediaries with a divine force. Where Music Comes From is my celebration of the spirit of music apart from the business of music. In these photographs I try to glimpse the process these soulful musicians engage in to produce their sound.”

In his other book of music, JAZZ, the text was written by Wynton Marsalis. In its introduction, an unidentified author writes: “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.”

The photographs find Alexanian shadowing the trumpeter to workshops, lectures, performance, recording, composing and repose. There’s Marsalis with other band members, students and Seji Ozwa, Art Farmer and Marcus Roberts. The book also includes a hand written composition by Marsalis called “Buddy Bolden.”

On the back cover of JAZZ, there’s a quote that reads: “The vocabulary of jazz, the basic building blocks of the music, are metaphors for communication. These haven’t changed very much since the very early days. Call and response means, I speak and you answer. A break … I stop and let you talk or vice versa. Solos … we each get a chance to expound on the subject. Riffs … we agree. Improvisation … what we say and how we say it. And finally, swing, which means coordinating all this communicating with style and good manners.”

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.”

When asked if he plays any musical instrument at all these days, Alexanian says no, before launching into a story about his travels with Marsalis. “I am now 57,” he says. “When I was 46 I decided I wanted to learn how to play jazz piano by the time I turned 50. I was taking lessons and making my way, but I couldn’t separate my left had from my right. I could not improvise. I was on the road with Wynton at one point during that time and he was getting ready for a gig in his hotel room. In every one of his hotel rooms there was a tuned piano because he writes music constantly. While he was getting ready I was playing this really bad version of ‘Autumn Leaves’ and he came over to the piano and put his hands over mine and said, ‘Just keep playing what you are playing.’ He played under and over what I was playing and said, ‘Can you feel that?’ It was like the most amazing thing that I had ever felt. It was everything that I imagined what it was like when a jazz group is really hitting it. That’s what I was feeling. I stopped playing piano after that. It was like there was no way I would feel that again. It was an unforgettable thing.”

Here are some other Marsalis quotes from the book: “I don’t believe in the fad theory of art. ‘Now what? Now what” Now what”’ Being the favorite flavor of the month is interesting and I’m not against it. I mean, it could taste good. But I just don’t think it sustains a grand vision.”

– “Music is the art of the invisible. With some music, if we listen – really listen – we become more humane because it puts us into balance. Jazz music is designed to do this.”

– “My father once told me, ‘Son, those who play for applause – that’s all they get. If you want to distinguish yourself from others, you have to be willing to do what they don’t want to do (like practicing).”

Alexanian still has family in Worcester but admits, “I sort of fled Worcester. My parents and my younger brother and sister live there. I come back to visit them. I don’t get there that often. I should have a relationship with the Worcester Art Museum. It would be nice to have a show there. I used to love going there when I was young.”

Asked to describe his take on jazz, Alexanian compared it to photography, saying, “I recently had a show in New York and did a gallery talk. There were a couple of curators there that knew a lot about pictures and this one woman asked amazing questions. I said, “It is sort of like jazz and red wine, there’s just so much to know. You can spend a life time studying jazz and never know it all.”

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