Jean Germain is bent over a tray of bagels, coffee and homemade lox. On the coffee table behind her is a big blue book, appropriately titled “Jazz From Row Six.”
A retired Montessori schoolteacher and a tiny spitfire of a woman, Germain spent more years snapping photographs of jazz musicians from row six at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall than she did teaching third- and fourth-graders in New Rochelle, N.Y.
Published in 2008 by New Chapter Publisher, the Sarasota publishing house of Italian entrepreneur Piero Rivolta, “Jazz From Row Six” is a collection of Germain’s most beloved photographs — images of jazz musicians in concert at the Van Wezel from 1981 to 2007.
For nearly three decades, Germain served as the Jazz Club of Sarasota’s official photographer, capturing the tail end of an era from the same theater seat every month. Although she didn’t set out to write a memoir, tribute or storybook, the 95-page hardback serves as such.
From behind the lens of a 35mm Nikon camera, with only the Van Wezel’s roving stage lights to guide her, Germain burned through rolls and rolls of high-speed film, stashing a telephoto lens, backup Nikon and an assortment of lens filters under her seat.
“I had to keep my eyes glued to my camera and my butt glued to my seat,” says Germain, who selected row six because it was close enough to get facial expressions and far enough so that she didn’t have to tilt her camera up.
The images aren’t perfect. Some are blurry. Some are grainy. Germain wasn’t allowed to use a flash and found that a tripod was too cumbersome from her vantage point, so she began using lens filters to streak the stage lights, giving many of her photographs unpredictable motion and noise.
When digital cameras came on the scene in the late 1990s, she refused to make the jump and still shoots with film to this day.
Reaching for the book, she flips to a 1996 photograph of Benny Waters blowing into his saxophone at 93 years old. Sinking into old memories, Germain laughs at Waters’ inflated cheeks, pointing out that the musician, like many of the musicians she photographed over the years, died shortly after his picture was taken.
“Very few photographers have had the privilege to follow musicians like this,” Germain says, flipping between photographs of Doc Cheatham, Eartha Kitt, Jerry Jerome and Milt Hinton, all of whom are dead. “Look at this photo of Eartha Kitt. She used to part her gown, stick her legs out and say, ‘I might be 80, but I’m still one sexy dame.’”
“Jazz From Row Six” is already revered among Sarasota jazz-lovers. The book placed first in the Entertainment/Pop Culture category in the 2009 Next Generation Indie Book Awards. And, in September, it earned a gold medal for best coffee-table book from the Florida Publishers Association.
“It’s not about me, though,” Germain says, simultaneously dismissing and savoring these accomplishments. “Something happened here in Sarasota with jazz music and I just happened to have my finger on the button.”
At 650-members large, the Jazz Club of Sarasota, which kicks off its 30th annual Jazz Festival Feb. 28, at Phillippi Estate Park, is one of the largest jazz clubs in the country. It hosts year-round jazz concerts at 25 to 30 different venues along the Gulf Coast and gives out four to five college scholarships each year.
“We have 300 jazz musicians in the area,” says club Chairman Gordon Garrett, who credits New York City transplant and renowned jazz pianist Dick Hyman with the influx of jazz musicians to Sarasota. “Dick moved down here and not long after, people just knew this was the place for jazz.”
Germain, who retired in 1979 to Pelican Cove in South Sarasota, wasn’t a jazz fanatic — nor was she a photographer — until she shared a bench in her neighborhood with Hal Davis, Benny Goodman’s former publicist and the Jazz Club of Sarasota’s founding father.
“When Hal asked me to take shots, I didn’t know the difference between an f-stop and a truck stop,” Germain quips, opening to a black-and-white photograph of Bob Haggart, one of her favorite subjects.
Pictured plucking the strings of his double bass, Haggart, who died 12 years ago in Venice, appears exuberant — the top button undone on his shirt, a conductor’s cap on his head.
“I once asked Bob Haggart about the future of jazz,” Germain says. “And he said, ‘We are the last of the Mohicans.’”
If You Go
The 30th annual Sarasota Jazz Festival runs Feb. 28 to March 6. Festival concerts begin March 1, at The Players Theatre. Musicians include the Four Freshman, the Doug Cameron Quartet, Greg Nielsen’s All-Star Band, the Harry Allen Quartet, Dick Hyman and Peter Appleyard. For tickets and a complete listing of festival events, visit www.jazzclubsarasota.org.
Contact Heidi Kurpiela at [email protected].