A new photographic exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery depicts the jazz scene of 1950s London in full swing.
Walter Hanlon’s atmospheric photographs include portraits of the most popular British and American jazz players of the period – amongst them Sir John ‘Johnny’ Dankworth, Humphrey Lyttelton and Cab Calloway.
Hanlon was born in Glasgow in 1926. Leaving school at 14, he joined the Merchant Navy before becoming a professional guitarist working with the Entertainments National Service Association and the American United Service Organisations.
He also broadcast with the big bands of David Miller, Miff Ferrie and George Elrick. These contacts were to prove useful when he pursued a career in photography from 1949 until the mid 1950s.
Using his inside knowledge of the 50s London jazz scene he was able to cover major music events, and his striking black and white shots were used for EP and LP covers.
This display of Hanlon’s evocative jazz portraits is contextualised with some of the record covers that the images originally appeared on, including the 1956 Annie Ross classic, Annie by Candlelight.
One of the key venues at the time was the London Jazz Club, at 100 Oxford Street. Originally a restaurant, live music was first played there by Victor Feldman and his band in 1942.
During the Second World War, American servicemen - some well known jazz and dance band musicians like Glenn Miller - visited the club and word soon spread.
In 1952 Hanlon staged an exhibition of his work at the club, and this new display includes intimate photographs of the private view as well as portraits of the artists that played there, including British jazzers Wally Fawkes, Steve Race and Joe Harriott.
Highlights of the display show Hanlon giving photography tips to Cab Calloway of ‘Minnie the Moocher’ fame, the sultry singer and actress Annie Ross caught in candlelight, and jazz musician, bandleader, broadcaster and journalist Humphrey Lyttelton depicted in silhouette, framed by a selection of his instruments.
Hanlon says: “I am very pleased and excited that the National Portrait Gallery is showing a selection of my work, which can now be seen by a much wider public. The Fifties were a stimulating time to be a photographer, and seeing these images again has evoked many pleasant memories. It was a privilege to be a part of that scene.”
It was only after retiring from his career as a television lighting director in 1989 that Hanlon re-visited his negatives, allowing these provocative images of a generation of jazz musicians to play once more.
The display opens in advance of the publication of Walter Hanlon’s book, 1950s Jazz in London and Paris (Tempus, February 2008, £15.99).
Text and images by 24 Hours Museum, UK