Guy Le Querrec, jazz stories

Photographs by Guy Le Querrec — Magnum Photos


Guy Le Querrec, jazz stories


Guy Le Querrec, jazz stories

A journey through time with the master of jazz photography.

Guy Le Querrec, jazz stories

HE TOOK HIS FINAL "MUSICAL" PHOTO ten years ago at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland. Ever since, Guy Le Querrec, 80, has slowed his pace and put away his cameras.

The co-founder of the Viva agency in 1972 and member of the Magnum photo agency from 1976 now lives without the Internet or a mobile phone in his house in Brittany, amidst an impressive collection of jazz images (about 15,000 contact sheets in total!). For 55 years, he snapped shots of the finest musicians on the planet, even winning a Victoire du Jazz award in 2017 alongside Théo Ceccaldi and Émile Parisien. His portraits of John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Ornette Coleman, Archie Shepp, Jacky Terrasson, and Sun Ra are instantly recognizable.

Lionel Hampton, 1990 — © Guy Le Querrec / Magnum Photos

Château Palmer : Do you remember the first photo you took of a concert at Château Palmer?

Guy Le Querrec : It was in 2011 for the second edition of the Hear Palmer jazz series. I was in Fribourg in Switzerland for an exhibition of my photographs, when I received a call from Thomas Duroux, the director of Château Palmer. He asked me to cover a concert by Michel Portal and Yaron Harman. I immediately boarded a plane for Bordeaux. Portal is an old friend whom I am very fond of. I discovered the château and tasted the wines, then photographed the two musicians rehearsing in the cellar. Yaron Herman, the pianist, was deeply focused, with Michel leaning over him, without his instrument, his fingers spread apart as if he were accompanying him on the piano. It was a moment of calm, high standards, and harmony.

Sonny Rollins — 1993 © Guy Le Querrec / Magnum Photos

Château Palmer : Are you in tune with the connection between jazz and wine?

Guy Le Querrec : On several occasions, I have seen musicians perform a vintage on stage after tasting it, playing a chorus that reflects the emotions they felt. This creates a subtle, interesting dialogue. But above all, I think that there is a shared virtue between wine, jazz, and even photography: freedom. Louis Sclavis used to say that I am not a “photographer of jazz” but rather a “jazz photographer,” in that I had the same mentality; I worked freely. American musicians would praise the quality of my portraits for this very reason; they recognized themselves in my approach, my instinct, without worrying about the given codes and norms of the day. This requires a certain relationship with time, an attention to detail, obstinance, and also a pinch of luck – as was the case for the scene with the pianist Brad Mehldau, taken in front of his dressing room at the Marciac Jazz Festival. The images were truly unique. Slipping through the raindrops, “caught wet-handed,” as Cartier-Bresson would have put it, I managed to make myself invisible and fired off a short succession of close-up, still-frame shots. The result was a photograph of Brad Mehldau between two umbrellas, in the solitude of his concentration.

© Guy Le Querrec — Magnum Photos
“I'm not a jazz photographer, but a jazz photographer, in the sense that i have the state of mind and the instinct to improvise.”
Guy Le Querrec — Photographer
Hear Palmer 2010 by Michel Portal & Yaron Herman — © Guy Le Querrec & Sergine Laloux

Château Palmer : When did your passion for jazz begin?

Guy Le Querrec : One summer at my childhood home in Morbihan, Brittany. I had been given a Rolleiflex camera for (barely) graduating high school. When I left home, I also took a case of vinyl records and the turntable. I positioned the LPs on chairs and photographed them like energetic still-life pieces! That was when my eyes began to listen. The sleeves featured the greats, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk – legends whose pictures I would soon be taking “in real life.” I captured Coltrane performing at L’Olympia in 1962, Charles Mingus at the Salle Wagram in 1964, and Archie Shepp rehearsing in 1967 at Le Chat qui pêche on Rue de la Huchette at the height of the free jazz/black power period. He actually became one of the musicians I worked with the most over the years…

Miles Davis, 1982 — © Guy Le Querrec / Magnum Photos

Château Palmer : What photographs do you keep in your personal pantheon?

Guy Le Querrec : Sorting through photos is very difficult. I have spent more than 40 years scouring the world’s jazz festivals. My shelves are bowed under the weight of my archives; jazz makes up a third of all the photographs I have taken. A few years ago, Thomas Duroux suggested that we classify my photos together, choosing one per year from 1961 to 2011. Fifty essential images. Snapshots of an era. We talked about it on the phone for hours. Which photograph for 1993? Which portrait of Ella Fitzgerald?
He helped me to construct this gentle blend, to build this harmony – a photograph, a sound, a wine – drawing on the memory of each vintage to choose a certain image or musician. In the end, we created a catalogue of photos that offer an excellent summary of this half-century.
The selection naturally features my first portrait of John Coltrane, taken with my Leica at the Olympia concert venue in 1962. I was just a novice and only took twelve photos, but that night was the catalyst for my vocation. I also love the photo of Sonny Rollins, the last of the greats, taken hurriedly in 1993. It shows him in the living area of his hotel room, lost in thought, vulnerable, at such odds with the character he conveyed on stage. I could talk about others: Miles Davis in 1982, back in Paris after a seven-year absence, his hands raised, a knit cap on his head. Then there was Lionel Hampton in Nice in 1990, who started improvising a drum solo on the saucepans of a restaurant kitchen!
Organizing these photos was a lot like composing a piece of music or making a fine wine. Sometimes, you also have to put your faith in the incredible powers of chance. It’s an experience to be relished.

Michel Portal & Yaron Herman, 2011 © Guy Le Querrec / Magnum Photos
John Coltrane, 1961 — © Guy Le Querrec / Magnum Photos