Francis Wolff Story

Francis Wolff’s images of musicians at work are so relaxed and intimate that they capture the spirit not just of the moment but also the era.
— Herbie Hancock

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Being an intensely private man, very little is known about the personal life of Francis Wolff. He was born Jacob Franz Wolff in Berlin on April 6, 1907. His father had earned a substantial amount of money on investments and provided a comfortable childhood for Francis to enjoy. 

His home life was filled with cultural diversity.  His father, a university mathematics professor, imbued him with a great love and appreciation of academia and the arts and sciences.  His mother was reputed to be something of a Bohemian and instilled Frank with a taste for the contemporary and iconoclastic. Interested in photography early on, he received formal training at a school in Berlin, and subsequently became a professional photographer.

By the time he was a teen, Frank had already discovered his lifelong love of jazz and at the age of fifteen he met Alfred Lion, who was immediately struck by his worldly, modern style. Their shared passion for this new music called jazz was the foundation of a life-long friendship.

In 1930 or ‘31, Wolff and Lion formed a partnership to buy wholesale jewelry and sell it in Spain. Fortunately for jazz, this short-lived venture was a failure. In 1933, Lion moved on to South America and eventually settled in New York. Wolff, who was a Jew, stayed in Berlin despite the rise of the Third Reich, remaining a collector of records and pursuing a successful career as a photographer. When the obvious became unavoidable, he caught what was probably the last direct boat leaving from Berlin for New York where it arrived on October 13, 1939.

Frank re-connected with Alfred and moved into his small apartment which was also the office and warehouse for the ten-month-old Blue Note Records. Frank worked retouching photographs by day and devoted his evenings to running the fledgling label. As the label grew, he managed its business affairs.

In time, he became so inundated with recording contracts, finances, and the day-to-day operations that he began to regard himself more as a record executive than a photographer.  He did, however, bring his camera to every recording session for the next 28 years, masterfully capturing an important chapter of jazz history. Record companies had little need for photographs in the days when 78s came in plain paper sleeves.  But Francis had his own pure need to create photographic images, and his early efforts resulted in some of the most intimately revealing and relaxed portraits ever made of many jazz giants during the pre-war era.

Alfred was drafted into the Army in 1941. At that time, Milt Gabler, owner of the Commodore Record Shop, and conceptual pioneer of the independent jazz label, offered Frank a job at his store. This provided him a space where he could continue to operate Blue Note Records. There he remained until Alfred's discharge in 1943 when they rented Blue Note's first meager office space at 10 West 47th Street. For the first time, both were able to devote full time to the company.

For the rest of the decade, Frank worked closely with Alfred on creative matters handling most of the label's business affairs. By all accounts, he was shy and retiring, despite the fact that his administrative and creative skills and talents were indispensable to Blue Note's existence. He appeared to be content to remain in the background behind his more illustrious and outgoing partner, Alfred Lion.

In 1946 or ’47, Blue Note issued five 78 rpm albums, each containing three 78s. They marked the first commercial use of Frank’s images. In 1951 with the dawn of ten-inch LPs and album cover art, Frank's work as a photographer suddenly became an extremely important asset to Blue Note.

By the mid-fifties when 12” LPs were introduced, Frank's photography had become an essential component of the Blue Note look. In the hands of designer Reid Miles, Frank's heavily cropped and tinted images would become an integral part of the look of the Blue Note's album covers. Still, what could not have been divined from those covers, and would not be seen until years later, was that Francis Wolff, while running a record company 16 hours a day, had evolved into a master photographer.

From 1953 to 1959, Blue Note's beautifully recorded sessions were usually done at Rudy Van Gelder's custom-built studio.  Located in his parents' living room in Hackensack, New Jersey, Rudy would say, "It was a fairly modern house for its time. The ceiling was fairly high, but it had spaces off the room that acoustically enhanced its natural size. The actual room had fixed dimensions, but there were additional spaces down the hall for the musical sound to bounce around."

Venetian blinds to the left of the piano, the television set with rabbit ear antennae visible behind the horn players and various sofas and floor lamps characteristically portray this living room where some of the greatest jazz of the fifties was recorded.

In July 1959, Rudy opened a studio of his own design in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey.  It had been two years in the making. The tall, masonry edifice that still serves as a studio today has a wooden arched cathedral ceiling and minimal lighting. Here, Frank had room to move, and his candid portraits took on greater depth.

Rudy Van Gelder, an avid photographer himself, remembered, "The majority of the pictures that Frank took were taken with a Rolleiflex camera and a f3.5 lens, set at f.11 or f.8.  Using Kodak tri-X film with a hand-held flash, he’d hold the camera in his left hand with the flash held up in his right - statue-of-liberty style. Trying to get the light source in the proper position, he was always stretching the cords to their capacity. In the middle of a session, he'd come behind the console and I'd have to solder the wires back together. At Blue Note sessions, Art Blakey was the thunder and Frank was the lightning."

Musicians can recall Alfred screaming at Frank during sessions in a thick German accent, "Stop! You're clicking on my record!." But Alfred knew that Wolff was creating an archive of great photographic value and a visual documentation of jazz history unmatched at any other record company.  Likened to that of the great portrait photographer Yousuf Karsh, his ability to frame, capture and light a shot was equally remarkable. But where Karsh had an afternoon and an obedient subject to get a shot, Frank had only an instant with a preoccupied musician. Still his candid portraits have astonishing precision. His eye and his technique nailed it, usually in the first shot…..not unlike the way great jazz musician can masterfully nail a solo on the first take.

As Marty Khan wrote in 2001, “Wolff had the uncanny ability to capture his subjects’ soul and essence with the same profound artistry seen in the work of the great Richard Avedon.  The difference was his mastery in reacting to a moment rather than designing it.”

When Alfred Lion retired in the late summer of 1967, Frank shared the role of record producer with Duke Pearson, and his photographic activity eventually slowed and finally ceased. Before that however, and as early as 1959, he did venture to work in color, using 2 ¼" by 2 ¼" Kodak ektachrome film. At first he would supplement his black and white work with a few color shots at the occasional session and shoot some photo sessions around New York for album cover art. After that, from mid 1967 to the end of 1969, he shot color photography exclusively at sessions.

Frank stayed at the helm of Blue Note until his death, caused by a heart attack following surgery on March 8, 1971, just a month short of his 65th birthday.

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