Music producer, author, photographer and former CIA agent, Hank O’Neal has plenty of experiences from which to draw inspiration. It would be easy to assume that it was O’Neal’s stint as a spy that gave him the ability to walk into Harlem homes of jazz legends and come out with amazing stories and photographs. However, it is more likely that it was O’Neal’s love of jazz, knowledge of music and easy-going personality that made 42 musicians pour out personal tales that became The Ghosts of Harlem: Sessions with Jazz Legends (Vanderbilt University Press, July 2009).
From 1985 – 2007, O’Neal interviewed artists who made music in Harlem during the community’s heyday and decline. He took their portraits with a large-format view camera and talked with them about jazz venues, racial interaction and why the Harlem music scene faded. Supplemented with many of his other photographs as well as memorabilia and historical photos, the book is accompanied by a CD that O’Neal produced from the archives of his record company, Chiaroscuro Records, featuring music by 17 of the “ghosts, ” including Cab Calloway, Milt Hinton, Doc Cheatham, Dizzy Gillespie, Buddy Tate, Eddie Barefield, Earl Hines and Illinois Jacquet, performing between 1972 and 1996.
The “ghost” stories are personal reminiscences of some of the jazz world’s leading musicians. As comfortable with O’Neal as with any insider, the performers talk openly about their life in Harlem, music in general, the people they knew, the places they played and what made Harlem a city within a city.
O’Neal tells delightful stories; many made it to print, others are memories that can be easily coaxed out of the photographer. For instance, one of O’Neal’s first interviews was with the guitarist Eddie Durham. After a long interview and photo session, O’Neal, Durham and the drummer Kelly Martin headed to O’Neal’s car that was parked in the upper 130s. The neighborhood was a bit rougher than it is today and Durham asked, “Don’t you feel a little nervous bringing your car up here and leaving it on the street?” A couple of steps later, they reached Hank’s “sad little New York street car.” Durham looked at it and said, “Well, I guess you don’t.” They never finished the interview, because Durham got a gig out of New York and unfortunately passed away within a month of his return to the city.
Then there was a meeting with Dizzy Gillespie. O’Neal was never allowed to sit in the trumpeter’s immaculate living room, but was always ushered to Dizzy’s magnificent music room in the basement. “Everything with Dizzy always took longer than expected, and the day of my photo session was no different, ” said O’Neal. Before they could get started, Dizzy asked the photographer about a camera – a circa mid-1950s Rolleiflex – that was giving him trouble. Hank had a camera just like it, so he was able to make it work. But, by the time he finished with the repairs, they both were out of time. O’Neal came back a week later and captured what some say is one of the best photos of Dizzy in his later life. It is also the only portrait of a musician that Hank is allowed to hang in the living room of his home.
The last of the important big band leaders still living in Harlem, Andy Kirk lived at 555 Edgecombe Avenue, one of the best buildings in Sugar Hill. Lena Horne, Joe Louis and a host of other notables also lived there. As O’Neal was entering the building with his expensive cameras, a group of tough looking kids approached him. His instincts told him he was in trouble, but his desire for survival and love of his cameras told him to say something good and fast. He launched into a conversation about all of the famous people who had lived in the building. He kept them enthralled until the elevator came and he was able to make a break for it. Then, he entered Kirk’s apartment, where the band leader told O’Neal more stories about watching games at the Polo Grounds for free from his living room, life on the road in the 30′s, working with Mary Lou Williams and his desire to assemble a 16-piece band to play his music. Kirk didn’t hit the road with a new big band, but O’Neal was definitely armed with interesting stories when he exited the building.
O’Neal visited Maxine Sullivan in her Ritter Place home in the Bronx on numerous occasions. They talked about gigs in Harlem and on 52nd Street. After the interview was finished, he turned off the tape recorder and moved to his cameras. Everyone who knew Sullivan knew that she liked her clothes and her wigs. “She was wearing a blue jumpsuit, red shoes, no makeup and no wig. She looked at me and said simply, ‘What you see is what you get.’ That was enough for me and the pictures came out very well.”
Ms. Sullivan’s declaration is actually the recurring theme throughout THE GHOSTS OF HARLEM – what you see is what you get. And, what the reader sees and gets is a stellar journey throughout world-famous Harlem USA through the eyes of a spy, photographer, author and music producer Hank O’Neal.
Hank O’Neal is equally well known as a music producer, author and photographer. As a child growing up in Texas (born in Kilgore in 1940), he first experienced the joys of photography when he watched his father print World War II pictures and family portraits in a kitchen darkroom. At age 12, he won a Brownie Hawkeye camera in a drawing and soon began taking and processing his own pictures. Following the War, the O’Neals moved to Syracuse, NY, and Hank attended Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute before graduating from Syracuse University in 1962.
Prior to graduation, Hank was introduced to a representative from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and ultimately accepted employment with the organization. He reported for duty in 1963 and remained with the CIA for 13 years. The nature of his employment allowed him the flexibility of pursuing other interests, including photography and music. He moved to New York from Washington, DC, in 1967 and still lives in the culturally-diverse Greenwich Village.
During 40 years in the music business, O’Neal formed two record companies (Chiaroscuro Records and Hammond Music Enterprises), owned and operated two recording studios, produced more than 200 jazz records and 100 music festivals (with his partner Shelly Shier) and served on the boards of various non-profit organizations, including the Jazz Foundation of America, the Jazz Museum in Harlem, the Jazz Gallery and the Jazz and Contemporary Program of The New School.
In addition to THE GHOSTS OF HARLEM (which was published in French in 1997), O’Neal also authored THE EDDIE CONDON SCRAPBOOK OF JAZZ (1973), A VISION SHARED (1976), CHARLIE PARKER: THE FUNKY BLUES DATE (1995), GAY DAY: THE GOLDEN AGE OF THE CHRISTOPHER STREET PARADE (2006) and BERENIECE ABBOTT (2008), about his long-time friend, teacher and fellow photographer.
Now equipped with a Leica, Nikon, Rolleiflex, Deardorff and other cameras more advanced than his first Brownie Hawkeye, Hank O’Neal continues to shoot whatever “pleases or astonishes” his eye. His portraits have been on exhibit at galleries and museums across the nation, including The Witkin Gallery, The Howard Greenburg Gallery and The Longview Museum of Fine Arts in Texas. Exhibits to showcase THE GHOSTS OF HARLEM are scheduled for the Jazz Museum in Harlem in July and the WBGO-FM Jazz Gallery in August.