[JPL] . . . And All That Jazz Memorabilia!
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Tue Mar 1 15:03:22 EST 2005
March 1, 2005
. . . And All That Jazz Memorabilia!
By COREY KILGANNON
In a basement apartment on Charlton Street in the West Village, there are
eight tall file cabinets stuffed with hundreds of dog-eared manila folders.
The cabinets do not look imposing or important, but they contain possibly
the finest collection of jazz photos in the world.
Even people with a passing interest in jazz photographs may recall seeing
the "Courtesy of the Frank Driggs Collection" tag on pictures in newspapers,
magazines, books and documentaries.
Mr. Driggs has almost 100,000 pieces of jazz memorabilia, mostly
photographs. Several hundred of them are published each year, and he was the
biggest contributor of photos to Ken Burns's highly regarded television
documentary chronicling the history of jazz.
Mr. Driggs has rarely displayed his collection publicly. He has never
advertised, or even listed himself or his business in a phone directory. But
after a half-century of diligent collecting, Mr. Driggs, 75, says he would
like to devote more time to writing about jazz and practicing his trumpet.
He is seeking to sell his collection and says he has approached several
prominent jazz institutions, including Jazz at Lincoln Center. So far, a
sale is not in the offing.
The collection has been appraised at $1.5 million by Dan Morgenstern,
director of the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers in Newark. Not only
could Mr. Driggs use the money, but he wants the collection to go to an
organization that will value it and put the photographs on public display,
The only problem is that Mr. Driggs does not seem ready to actually part
with his photographs, each painstakingly procured and preserved. Most of
them lack identification information, since Mr. Driggs, a lifelong fan and
student of jazz, can identify most of the musicians in his collection by
For years, the collection was a hobby, not a business. He used to estimate
his inventory by the thickness of the folders of each band, musician or
genre. But recently, a college student spent a few weeks counting the
photographs and categorizing them. The student tallied 78,188 images in all
- including 1,545 of Duke Ellington, 1,083 of Louis Armstrong, 692 of Benny
Goodman, and 585 of Count Basie.
Most of the photos have never been published. Many may never be. Often,
clients want the same few popular photographs of the most popular artists.
There are few requests for Mr. Driggs's 57 photographs of Frankie Newton or
the 199 of Red Nichols. Both are somewhat obscure trumpeters.
"I don't care; I like them," Mr. Driggs explained. "Most photo agencies have
5 or 10 pictures of Louis. "I have a thousand. Why? Because I want them."
The bulk of Mr. Driggs's archive - he calls it an American music collection
- consists of early ragtime and rural blues artists and New Orleans groups
up to big bands of the 1930's and 1940's.
To satisfy clients' requests , he has added other genres, like rock, country
and pop. For example, he now has 46 photos of the tenor saxophonist Chu
Berry, but also 58 photographs of Chuck Berry.
He showed off an original 1924 photograph of Louis Armstrong with the
Fletcher Henderson Orchestra, autographed by Armstrong to Fate Marable, a
riverboat bandleader who had hired Armstrong several years earlier. It was
given to Mr. Driggs by the wife of Harry Dial, a drummer for Fats Waller.
Mr. Driggs keeps an additional eight cabinets of sheet music, negatives,
playbills and other memorabilia in a large storage space nearby on Vandam
But his main photo archive is kept in the basement of an 1827 town house
once owned by Aaron Burr and now owned by Joan Peyser, a writer mostly on
classical music and artists, with whom Mr. Driggs lives.
Before he moved back to Manhattan in April, he kept his collection in the
basement of his house in Flatbush, which he sold last year to move in with
Ms. Peyser. For years, visitors had taken the No. 2 train to the end of the
line and called from a pay phone to have Mr. Driggs pick them up in his Ford
"It was always word of mouth," Ms. Peyser said. "You had to work to find
him. It was kind of a cult thing."
In one drawer, the Lee Morse folder is followed by Jelly Roll Morton and
Gerry Mulligan. Anita O'Day is next to Jazz in Oklahoma. Stan Kenton is
followed by B. B. King. Eartha Kitt is followed by Andy Kirk and his Clouds
of Joy. The Nightclubs folder includes membership cards to the Stork Club,
the Hunt Club, the Royal Box and Nick's.
Mr. Driggs has an electric typewriter in his office, but no computer. He
uses Ms. Peyser's fax machine upstairs. The phone is old, and when it rang,
it was an old-fashioned bell ring. Mr. Driggs answered it and said: "O.K.,
send me a fax. That's the easiest way."
"They want a picture of Snakehips Tucker, the great Harlem snake dancer," he
said, pulling a folder labeled "Dancers (Afro American)" and flipping
through the photos. "That's Chuck and Chuckles, and that's Peg Leg Bates.
Man, he was some dancer. Come on, I got to have Snakehips Tucker in here
somewhere. Where's Snakehips? Here it is." He pulled out a photo of a
smiling man standing with his lithe body postured like the letter S.
Mr. Morgenstern, the jazz studies institute director, called the collection
astonishing and of "tremendous depth."
"It's a unique assemblage of jazz materials you won't find anywhere else,"
he said. "Frank had the foresight and advantage to acquire these materials
from the musicians and their estates, and now that they're all gone, he has
this unique, one-of-a-kind treasure trove. There isn't another like it."
Most of Mr. Driggs's photographs are in the public domain, since many are
publicity stills and others are family or personal photographs or
professional pictures whose photographers are long forgotten. For pictures
whose photographer is known, Mr. Driggs splits the publication fees with
them, he said.
Mr. Driggs, whose father was a jazz musician, listened to jazz as a young
boy in Vermont. When he was 6 his parents divorced, and he moved with his
mother to Westchester County, where he listened to late-night radio
broadcasts of jazz from nightclubs and hotel ballrooms.
After graduating from Princeton in 1952 with a degree in political science,
he moved to Manhattan, working days as a page at NBC and spending nights
listening to jazz at places like Basin Street, Jimmy Ryan's, Birdland, Café
Bohemia and the Savoy Ballroom.
He began gathering and saving posters, fliers, ticket stubs, recordings and
photos and other memorabilia. He checked out photograph sales and would ask
musicians he interviewed for jazz magazines for access to their personal
There was the stash that the tenor saxophonist Al Sears gave him. There were
the negatives he bought from Leo Arsene, an entertainment photographer who
had a shop on Seventh Avenue.
"I was interested in the history of jazz and I began buying photographs to
fill in the gaps in my knowledge and gaps in the current accounts of the
day," Mr. Driggs said.
One thing he never did was carry his own camera.
"I don't know why; don't ask," he said ruefully.
In the late 1950's, the legendary producer John Hammond hired Mr. Driggs to
help him at Columbia Records. Soon Mr. Driggs was producing records,
organizing recording sessions and putting out important re-issues of
recordings by Fletcher Henderson, Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, Gene Krupa
and the blues man Robert Johnson.
He left Columbia in the mid-1970's.
"I've been living off this stuff ever since," he said, patting his file
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