Ron Hudson: Jazz on the Focal Plane
Summing up the career of a man as extraordinary as jazz photographer Ron Hudson is an intimidating proposition. He has spent the past thirty-plus years photographing some of jazz's brightest dignitaries, capturing moments and committing them to history. He's also heard some great music along the way.
Hudson and I recently met at his home on a sunny, February afternoon. Hudson and his energetic canine companion, Ella Fitz, greeted me at the door. It was my second time to meet Hudson. I had made his acquaintance in December when I purchased an image of Pat Metheny from him as a Christmas present for my husband. Hudson is gracious, personable, down-to-earth and quite easy to talk to. He escorted me upstairs to the living area of his home. We entered a comfortable space full of light, color and art, some of which were paintings done by Hudson himself.
One of the first things that caught my eye was a wall with about a dozen photographs of some of jazz's brightest figures: Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Joe Williams, Milt Jackson and Shelly Manne to name a few. All of the images were signed, some with personal notes to Hudson and some with a simple signature, or as in the case of Miles Davis, a signature and a dotted quarter note.
Our afternoon of stories began at this wall. He pointed out an image of French pianist, Michel Petrucciani, who suffered from "Glass Bone Disease which dwarfed his frame but not his talent. Petrucciani played extensively with saxophonist, Charles Lloyd. Hudson once took an image of Lloyd holding Petrucciani at the end of a performance. There was also a photograph of Shelly Manne, taken at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1982. Manne is sitting behind his drum kit, flashing a particularly sweet smile. The accompanying signature, which is personalized to Hudson, is lively and large. Manne died of a sudden heart attack two days after he signed the image.
Hudson and I continued our discussion in his kitchen. We talked and sipped French- pressed coffee. Hudson was born in the Bay Area and lived, for a time, with his family in Santa Maria. After graduating from high school, Hudson went into the Air Force, where he served as an illustrator. During this time, his family moved to Monterey.
In 1959, while on leave, Hudson was visiting his family while the Monterey Jazz Festival was going on. It was only the second year of the festival. Hudson's mother was a singer and lover of the arts, and Hudson decided to take her to the festival one evening. The lineup on that particular night consisted of Sarah Vaughan and her trio, Oscar Peterson and his trio and Count Basie and his Big Band.
If the dream billing wasn't enough, Lambert, Hendricks and Ross served as Masters of Ceremonies for the evening. Hudson recalls that they sang their introductions to all the performers and that they sat backstage and scribbled lyrics for their acapella introductions. This was the first of what would be many more evenings at the Monterey Jazz Festival for Hudson.
After Hudson completed his Air Force duties, he moved to Monterey and worked as a graphic illustrator. He eventually moved to Hawaii where he served as an art director for an advertising agency. During this time, he met Robert Knight, the renowned rock and roll photographer. Knight was shooting images of rocks stars during the hey days of the late 60's and early '70s. Mick Jagger, Carlos Santana, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin are among his subjects.
Knight became a mentor to Hudson and taught him about technical aspects of the art such as pushing film and shooting available light. This would be invaluable to Hudson in the years ahead. An assignment with Sun Bums, a local beach newspaper was Hudson's first opportunity to take photographs at the Monterey Jazz Festival. With press credential in hand, Hudson set out to Monterey. That was in 1973, and he has been every year since.
The majority of Hudson's collection has been shot at the Monterey Festival. Monterey is "kind of like home to Hudson and is where he has met many dear friends as well as some of the world's greatest jazz musicians. There he has captured images of such notables as Count Basie, Tito Puente, Ray Brown, Stan Getz, Carmen McRae, Joshua Redmond, Woody Herman, Ray Charles and Oscar Peterson. These are just a few. The list is very long and very impressive. Many of these images hang on the walls of his home. I was struck by them and in some cases, mesmerized. (A very lovely shot of Christian McBride comes to mind.)
Hudson has not only seen plenty of action onstage at Monterey but backstage as well. In his words, you could get into some "serious hang backstage at Monterey. There's a bar, "The Hunt Club behind the backstage area and there are closed circuit televisions for catching whatever is happening onstage. Booze flows, and the scene jumps with musicians, journalists, photographers and other jazz hipsters.