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Tony Bennett with jazz and music journalist Lee Mergner. Photograph courtesy of Lee Mergner.

Introduction to the Lee Mergner Jazz Photography Collection

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The following is a guest post written by jazz and music journalist Lee Mergner, editor, publisher and contributor for JazzTimes from 1990 to 2022. He shares the history of JazzTimes and the story of how the photographs came into his care when JazzTimes was sold to a magazine publisher.

This collection of photographs came from more than 50 years of publishing a national jazz magazine, one that started out local. Very local. JazzTimes was founded in 1970 in Washington, D.C., by Ira Sabin, a record store owner (and part-time drummer/bandleader), who wanted a circular to give out in his Sabin’s Discount Records store located then in the Penn Branch Shopping Center. The store was originally on U Street but the riots of 1968 led Ira to relocate his business to a Southeast D.C. neighborhood just a mile or two from its original downtown location. The lore has it that the store was not destroyed like so many others on the U Street corridor during that tumultuous time, because Julian Bond stood in front of it during the riots and reminded people that the store sold Black music. It seems like an apocryphal story, but it makes for a good tale. That the store was a haven for Black music of the time, such as soul, R&B, blues, and jazz, is indisputable. Buried deep in the collection are photographs that show greats posing with Ira before or after an in-store appearance. Regular guests included Sarah Vaughan, Rufus Thomas, Ramsey Lewis, Betty Carter, and so many other notable figures. The collection also includes publicity photographs of many of the artists active at that time.

Ira Sabin and Lee Mergner, center, flanked by Sabin’s children, Glenn and Jeff. Sabin owned Sabin’s Discount Records, which inspired the start of the store marketing circular that became JazzTimes. Photograph courtesy of Lee Mergner.

The first editions of the “publication” were more like sales flyers than magazines, but some of the local DJs and people on the scene encouraged Ira to expand the circular to include short reviews and recommendations. In the subsequent months and years, it started to become a tip sheet for radio folks. That had to be the reason that Ira then changed the name of the circular-meets-publication to Radio Free Jazz. Honestly, none of us who knew Ira have any idea what that title was about. Clearly a reference to Radio Free Europe, but did it mean that radio featured free jazz or avant garde jazz?  Or that radio should free itself from jazz? Or that the publication was free?  (It wasn’t.)  Well, we will never know.

In those years of the 1970s and early 1980s, Radio Free Jazz turned into a veritable trade publication specifically for the intersection of jazz record labels and radio stations/shows. One of the most popular columns was Pulling Coattails in which jazz radio stations and hosts would write in and ask to be sent specific releases or recordings from various labels. All the while, Ira received submissions from noted jazz writers to contribute reviews and stories. Jazz journalists like Ira Gitler and Leonard Feather submitted reviews, columns, and reports. It was Feather who suggested that Ira drop the Radio Free Jazz name and instead call it Jazz Times, as he told Ira, “Just like the New York Times.” So, the circular started as a tip sheet then became a real magazine, albeit a newsprint tabloid. But, hey, so was the Village Voice and many of the alt-weeklies that were popular in the 1980s and 1990s. The publication’s name at some point turned into JazzTimes as one word with a capital T, something that befuddled most people then and even now. I think that choice mostly had to do with the logo, which was basically Helvetica Bold Italic. Hey, don’t judge designers before there was, well, just about everything design-wise. Then again, Helvetica is timeless.

I joined the publication in 1990 and partnered with Ira’s sons, Glenn and Jeff, with whom we transformed JazzTimes into a multi-color glossy magazine, beginning in December 1990. JazzTimes became one of the greatest music magazines in the world and won numerous awards for design and content. After the bottom dropped out of the record industry and the print media business in 2009, the magazine’s assets were sold to Madavor Media, a publishing company based in Braintree, Massachusetts. However, the photograph collection the publication amassed through the years was not part of that acquisition, nor did it convey to Madavor. Instead, rather than go into the local dump, I kept the three very full filing cabinets in my house, and because I did continue with the magazine under the new ownership, I occasionally used images from the collection for JazzTimes stories and more recently for WBGO pieces and social posts.

Lee Mergner with Mike Stern in Newport, Rhode Island. Photograph courtesy of Lee Mergner.

You will notice that many of the photographs in the collection have crop marks, as well as percentages, because that was how magazines were printed in the days before desktop publishing—with instructions to the printer written on the photographs themselves. Credits for the photographs sent to the magazine by freelance photographers would usually show up on the back. Sometimes with their address (no emails or website URLs then). The collection includes contributions from many of the great jazz photographers of the last 30 years. I did my best to reach out to as many as I could, explaining that their photographs would not be used for another use without their permission. Only one said no.

One photographer who would not have said no was the late Ira Sabin whom I would describe more as a shutterbug than a photographer, but like musicians such as Milt Hinton, Dizzy Gillespie, and John Clayton, Ira often had a camera around his neck. Ira photographed many jazz greats on and off the bandstand, but what he really loved most was to photograph kids. After all, Ira was a playful kid himself. Some folders contain photographs from specific photographers of some renown. Also, a few photographers in Europe—including Detlev Schilke, Hyou Vielz, and Jan Persson—would send us their work in batches. And I recommend looking at the folders with photographs by W. Patrick Hinely and Tad Hershorn, as they each had a distinctive and memorable style. As we got into the 1990s and aughts, we received many more color slides, which are included in the collection. So many of them were of the publicity shot category, but not all.

Over the years, authors, filmmakers, and book publishers would contact us looking for images of a specific jazz artist or venue. We would always make it clear that we did not have the rights to use the photographs and that the photographer or copyright holder would need to be contacted for permission. We had established close relationships with so many jazz and music photographers and always did our best to work on their behalf in the most professional manner.

Although numerous photographs were submitted to JazzTimes by various freelance photographers, much of the collection consists of 8×10 publicity photographs sent with the latest album, cassette, or CD, often in a folder along with a press release. The later you go, the less interesting those publicity photographs are, at least creatively. But go into a file of some jazz legend and you will find photographs that will make you smile.

Ultimately, I hope the collection has that effect on you.

The Lee Mergner Jazz Photography Collection arrived at the Library of Congress Music Division in late March. Contact the Performing Arts Reading Room staff for inquiries about using the collection.

Comments (4)

  1. Thanks so much for this look into this aspect of history of jazz music right in Washington, DC. We are so fortunate that Lee Mergner kept those “three very full filing cabinets,” and other material, and they have now come to the LC. I never knew about this rich history.

    • Hi Rebecca. We’re glad you enjoyed Lee’s post. Thanks for following our blog In the Muse.

  2. Thank you for this wonderful treasure.

    • Hi Olivia. We’re always happy to know when people enjoy our collections!

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