The latest issue of Vogue features the above picture, an Annie Leibovitz-composed portrait of the ever-dapper King Wynton rehearsing with the JALC orchestra. A quick glance at the photo might leave one with the impression that it’s a standard glamour shot, but another look brings into focus a curiously sprawled blonde, almost camouflage against the teak floor. As Patrick Jarenwattananon asked when he posted a link to the photo on his NPR blog, “what's with the sitting woman?”
After reading Patrick’s question and looking at the photo, I began to grasp at the strands of a few possible answers—none of them positive for the music. After the initial surprise at seeing a pretty, well-dressed woman gazing at our unsuspecting hero, I found it hard to ignore the issue of race. Here is a powerful black man being ogled by a seemingly helpless white woman, a pairing rife with historical precedent from Kong to LeBron. While this photo doesn’t scream jungle rape like that infamous Vogue cover (note: same magazine), there’s a faint, unnerving echo played out in the way that Leibovitz arranges her principals. The woman looks both available and immobile (standing up from that pose would take some doing) and Marsalis towers above her. There’s a tragic history of objectifying black masculinity in the eyes of white femininity, and the photo's resonance with that history makes troubling Leibovitz’s decision to use a white model as smitten damsel before her black captor.
It’s also hard not to notice the privileging of white over black beauty: the photo might still smack of gender inequality with a black model, but it wouldn’t recall Jim Crow. In 1957, when Columbia Records showed Miles Davis the first LP cover to Miles Ahead, he famously quipped to producer George Avakian, “Why'd you put that white bitch on there?” Subsequent additions of the album showed a picture of Davis playing his horn and when Davis’s later album covers showed women, they were always black*. Annie Leibovitz is a powerful artist who gets her way, but if she had set-up a similar shoot for Miles, I imagine he’d have given her a cold stare and repeated what he said to Avakian. Marsalis might have considered a similar rebuke.
It’s easy to blame Leibovitz for these racial overtones, but there’s another possibility: perhaps Leibovitz, completely aware of what she’s doing, has merely given us an honest artistic interpretation of Marsalis. I think there’s plenty to admire about Wynton and Jazz at Lincoln Center: he’s an extraordinary musician (a fact that really sunk in after reading Ethan Iverson’s discussion of the Young Lions) and he’s built a home in which jazz is taken seriously and musicians are well paid, which, given the music’s history, is an epochal achievement. (I’d much rather listen to jazz at a small club than at Jazz at Lincoln Center, but if you were to have asked Thelonious Monk in 1952 if he’d rather keep playing that out-of-tune upright for less than a hundred bucks a night or play a Bösendorfer grand in a concert hall for a $10,000 fee, I’m inclined to think he would have bolted for JALC at the earliest chance.)
This advancement has come with a steep price, however, namely the commodification of jazz as a luxury good. Wynton poses in ads for Movado watches (he wears one in the photo as well) and leads an institution that rents space in a gilded corporate palace alongside New York’s two most expensive restaurants. Tickets to JALC are expensive and its patrons affluent, which makes for great business but a questionable breeding ground for great art. In this context, maybe the white woman isn’t a helpless Ann Darrow, but just another perfect accessory for jazz’s greatest salesman.
* Update: Commenter Il Maestro points out that the cover of Miles's Porgy and Bess (released after Miles Ahead) depicts the trumpeter and a white woman. Il Maestro says that the Marsalis photo reminded him first of the Porgy cover and I can see why. I responded at length to Il Maestro in the comments section and while I realize this post is walking some rather precarious interpretative ground, I think the Marsalis Vogue photo encapsulates a lot of ideas about Wynton, the JALC, and jazz history that make it worth exploring.
With respect to a comparison between Davis's Porgy cover and the Marsalis photo, I wrote this: "I did find the staging of the [Marsalis] photo indicative of the power imbalance of those old racist pairings—the helpless white woman gazing up at the big, mighty black man—and if I were to draw a separation between Miles's Porgy cover and the Wynton Vogue photo it would be on those grounds: Miles and his companion are clearly a couple, on the same level, and each occupying half of the frame."