Wynton Marsalis New York 1991
Wynton Marsalis in New York, 1991 © Arthur Elgort

“Have you seen Baby Driver? It’s a very funny movie, but it’s also sad, because everyone dies. Except my son.” Arthur Elgort, the 78-year-old photographer best known for his dynamic fashion images in the pages of Vogue, is speaking over the phone from Southampton in New York, where he spends his summer season.

He is meant to be discussing the upcoming launch of his new book, Jazz, but he has instead assumed the conversational role of proud father. He returns frequently to his three children, Sophie, a photographer, Warren, a film producer, and Ansel, whom Elgort describes as “an actor — and kind of a famous actor, at that”. He then asks me if I am married. I say no. His reply: “Well, you’ve got time. I didn’t get married until I was 43 years old. And it worked out just fine. I’m still alive.”

Elgort has a charming way with people — he’s funny and candid and interested. For every question asked of him, he fires one back, curious to know more, as though framing his subjects in a mental viewfinder. His natural energy — a little syncopated, responsive, lively — blends well with the traits of one of his original passions: jazz. As the American trumpeter Wynton Marsalis writes in one of the forewords in the book: “[Arthur] loves jazz and jazz musicians, and we love him.”

Elgort’s passion for jazz began at a formative age. “I’ve been going to concerts since I was 10 years old. I was listening mainly to Sidney Bechet and Louis Armstrong.” He has always been drawn to the worlds of performance and music. “I started as a ballet photographer, but there was no money in that. So I became a fashion photographer. And fashion photography — well, there’s very little money left there, either.”

Contact sheet showing musicians and models in Harlem, 2000
Contact sheet showing musicians and models in Harlem, 2000 © Arthur Elgort

Be that as it may, Elgort has had a long and illustrious career in the world of fashion image-making. He has worked extensively with Grace Coddington, formerly of American Vogue, as well as with Vogue Italia and British Vogue. His style is quick witted and of-the-moment. One of his most famous pictures depicts model Stella Tennant diving into a swimming pool wearing a tweed suit and Wellington boots. The image captures the split second as the water breaks. As Marsalis says, Elgort’s work is “executed at the speed of instinct”.

Jazz, with its improvisation, soul and performative nature, has always drawn Elgort’s lens. He has often found himself shooting fashion and jazz in tandem. “Whenever anybody needed jazz with their fashion, they called me,” he says. “Vogue Italia liked jazz, a lot.” One of his favourite images in the book finds the musician George Benson, dressed in a collarless shirt and suit, walking down the street with model Liya Kebede, who is clad in Fendi furs. “George was just the coolest guy,” says Elgort. “I’m going to give myself that photograph for Christmas. I’m going to blow it up, huge.” He always gives his subjects a print. “Unless it’s really bad,” he adds. “Once in a while, I f*** up.”

George Benson and Liya Kebede in New York, 2000
George Benson and Liya Kebede in New York, 2000 © Arthur Elgort

Elgort says that there are natural style correlations between the fashion and jazz communities and the photographer recalls a number of musicians with particularly memorable flair. “They all dress very . . . fancy,” he says. “Wynton Marsalis’s band, they have a partnership with Brooks Brothers. But overall, these are sharp guys. They’re not sloppy. They like getting dressed up. And they like to wear hats.”

He recalls a photo shoot on a boat called the SS Norway, where he captured Dizzy Gillespie in a sailor’s cap embroidered with the musician’s name. “Dizzy was a character,” Elgort says of the late jazz virtuoso, one of the many faces featured in the book who are no longer with us.

Dorothy Donegan New Orleans 1991
Dorothy Donegan in New Orleans, 1991 © Arthur Elgort

Of Dorothy Donegan, whom Elgort refers to as “[possibly] the best female jazz pianist you’ve ever heard,” he recalls: “Dorothy would wear real Chanel shoes, but the rest of the outfit, including the hat, was fake Chanel. I actually bought her the Chanel shoes. We went to the store, and I said, ‘one pair’. She wore them all the time when she performed.”

As to the very best-dressed jazz musicians, however, Elgort nominates James Carter and Jason Moran. “James and Jason are slick,” says Elgort of the pair, who are both in their forties. “They won’t go out until they look good.”

James Carter New York 2000
James Carter in New York, 2000 © Arthur Elgort

Those in the fashion world may be surprised to know that Elgort was, for a long while, a jazz musician himself. He played the trumpet until a stroke prevented him from continuing. He’s not in sour spirits over it. “You know, with the stroke, I lost my ‘ear’. I can’t make up the melodies any more.” He sighs. “But, I am still alive, and I feel good about that. And, thank God, I still have my ‘eye’.”

‘Jazz’ (Damiani) is out now in the UK and will be published in the US on October 18

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