by Ben Shine
Local Mix Masters is a series where occasionally I introduce people who are mixing it up, making stuff happen and holding down the decks in music around Indy. This time I got to talk to Indy's jazz photographer Mark Sheldon about being a part of the jazz community, his upcoming exhibition featuring Hoosier jazz greats and his life-changing albums.
If you have even a passing interest in Indianapolis jazz, you've surely seen Mark Sheldon's work. His photographs of Naptown's luminaries and rising players grace local CDs, publications, Facebook cover photos and show posters. You name it; he shoots it all. Much like the art form itself, his photographs capture the essence of the moment. He's also got a rare combination of talent and skill, but driven by a strong passion to build a community and legacy for Indianapolis jazz.
His first connection with photography started long before he owned a camera, exploring drawers full of his grandfather's photos as a kid. He took a photography class in high school and was hooked. Several decades and a big immersion into jazz later, Sheldon stands out as a nationally published and recognized photographer in jazz circles.
He's published regularly in Downbeat Magazine (the "jazz Bible"), and his photos have appeared in the pages of Jazz Times, Time Out, Living Blues, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and even here on Sky Blue Window.
In 2008 he brought together more than 100 Indiana musicians for "A Great Day in Indy," a re-creation of Art Kane's famous "Harlem 1958." He also sits on the board of directors of the Indy Jazz Fest, where he chairs the Legacy committee.
I caught up with him on his way to a Sunday evening event at his second home, the Jazz Kitchen, to talk about his first exhibition of photographs featuring all Indianapolis jazz musicians, which opens next Friday, Aug. 7th at the Indiana Landmark Center.
SBW: How did you get into music photography and how did you become focused on jazz?
MS: I grew up with a healthy dose of rock, soul, the British Invasion bands and Motown. Music of the '60s continues to be my biggest source of enjoyment, whether it be jazz, blues, soul or rock. I can't imagine a decade that brought us more musically.
Once I got into photography, I didn't go anywhere without a camera, and early on would sneak my camera into places I probably shouldn't have. It just grew from there. My work with jazz musicians didn't come until later. Early on, I photographed mostly rock musicians -- Zep, Queen, ACDC, Santana. I think to that time, and, while I liked jazz, I couldn't quite wrap my arms around it. Once I learned to quit trying to figure it out, I got it.
Jazz and photography, at least for me, work well together. I think they are very similar in that they are both very visual. Live music is the best way to listen to music in my opinion, and jazz musicians and the way they interact with each other is visual. I think live jazz and photography are a natural match.
SBW: You're more than just a guy taking pictures at shows. You're connected to the entire local jazz community.
MS: I knew some of the jazz musicians in town before I did the "Great Day" project, but it really grew after that. I'm a big supporter of the Indy jazz scene photographically, and i think the guys saw me hanging around and just accepted me. I have so many friends in the music community. I'm really proud to call them my friends.
I think it's a pretty tight-knit community and once you know a few of the guys, it all falls together. We have a limited number of venues that feature jazz on a nightly basis, The Jazz Kitchen is my home away from home when I'm in Indy. David Allee and the Jazz Kitchen are real bright spots in the community, and those not taking advantage of what he has to offer are missing something. Same thing for David Andrichik at the Chatterbox.
SBW: What's your favorite shot and why?
MS: I did a shoot in 2005 with the legendary Johnny Griffin in Chicago. He was originally from Chicago but had lived in France for a couple decades. I had missed him on previous trips for one reason or another, so it was really meaningful to get the opportunity to photograph him. He passed away a few years later.
SBW: What makes for a great jazz photograph, and when are you happy with a shot?
MS: Primarily light, shadows and emotion, but being in the right place at the right time is important. For the most part, I get a feel quickly about the image I want to make and, in most cases, I see in my mind what the image will look like before I make it.
I'm not sure I'm totally happy with a piece until I'm done with the editing and printing process. Many times I'm not happy about an image early on, but look at it a year later to find that it's better than I originally thought.
SBW: Who are the most exciting musicians in jazz to see right now -- locally and nationally?
MS: There are a lot of great young players out there. In Indy, Nick & Joel Tucker seem to be everywhere and have a new CD coming out soon. Nick has become a first-call bassist in the city, and his brother Joel is an amazing guitarist with a bright career ahead of him. Hopefully they will both stay in Indy! Some of the older guys are what make the scene so great, Steve Allee, Rob Dixon, BWJO ... but there are SO many guys on the scene with a lot to say musically.
I think we have a very important legacy in Indianapolis regarding jazz. I think it's very difficult to become a jazz musician without, at some point, going through the schools of Wes Montgomery, JJ Johnson, Freddie Hubbard ... guys like that. They really changed the way musicians approach those particular instruments. I heard one writer talk about the 'Indianapolis sound' and have had many conversations with musicians outside the city that speak fondly about many of the musicians from Indy.
SBW: You have an exhibition opening up at the Indiana Landmarks Center. Can you tell us what we'll see in that show?
MS: The current exhibit is called The Naptown Scene and will feature 50-plus photographs of all-Indy Musicians -- Freddie Hubbard, Slide Hampton, Jimmy Spaulding, Melvin Rhyne and many others. I've done a handful of exhibits, but this is my first one to focus solely on musicians from Indy. The photographs will span about a 25-year period and have a nice mix of older guys as well as the real young guys. The exhibit will show at the Indiana Landmarks Center in August, the opening will be on (First) Friday Aug. 7th and run through the month. It will include live music by Rob Dixon, Nick Tucker and Brian Yarde...and food, drinks, etc.
SBW: I ask everyone this, but what are your top three most life-changing albums?