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From The Vault Of Art Shay: I Believe In Music

By Art Shay in News on Oct 31, 2013 4:00PM

(Legendary Chicago-based photographer Art Shay has taken photos of kings, queens, celebrities and the common man in a 60-year career. This week, Art talks of his music skills in words an photos.)

Listening to a TV love fest of high level music talk the other night, I was much impressed with Metropolitan Opera Conductor James Levine's impassioned base hits off Charlie Rose's adoring verbal pitches. One thing struck me: Levine's mentor had been the great conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra, Georges Szell.

Georges Szell? I had once conducted him in a Tchaikovsky march in his Cleveland kitchen, with his wife holding up one side of my black background cloth and Time magazine's music editor holding up the other!!!! What was I doing there?

Segue to the deep past. I had tried to learn the bugle and did in fact, at 14, win the bugle championship of the East Bronx. The first prize was a summer at a rich kids camp. “Rich” meant those whose divorced parents could ante up $150 for a summer of fun.

This is how I met my wife Florence in 1942. I was Camp Winston's bugler and she edited the newspaper. Ultimately I graduated to the trumpet and this kid named Milty Roginsky who lived on my street became the immortal jazz trumpeter Shorty Rogers. We shared the same Conn trumpet, rented from James Monroe High for 25 cents a week. He was a star going in. He had a natural embouchure and talent.

Skipping WW2 and my life as a writer on Life Magazine, there I was one day perched behind a camera shooting James Levine's mentor, George Szell, for a Time cover...
again I quote Studs: "It's all connected, ain't it."

For years Levine has regaled opera and other music lovers with spirited renditions of Verdi, Mozart and the rest, composers like Tchaikovsky, Donnizetti and, you know, Gounod. Like many people, opera is not my favorite trope- but during the fascinating cultural TV parlay I kept getting a mental image of Szell who had taught me to make a head splitting martini after I photographed him for a Time cover artist. Szell who regaled us with how important the left hand was in conducting. Szell who said he wanted to show me how a Tchaikovsky March could fill his kitchen with light if I could "imagine the tip of his baton as a flashlight"

"YES!" said the maestro."We would have Tchaikovsky in my kitchen." So we taped a flashlight on his baton, the camera on a tripod set for a time exposure and I knew Studs would be watching from Chicago. It made me want to add villagers with firebrands to one of my old stories and follow them to the village where they would send a finale echoing off the gravestones—a Halloween image I now perceive.

I began my career as a wannabe musician playing the Hohner harmonica like mah ideal, Borah Minnevitch. Or so it sounded to me. At 14 I was beaten out in my Major Bowes amateur hour audition by twin sisters of 10 playing accordions joined at the waist as they smilingly rendered poor "Nola" which would eventually get them 702 votes and free egg cream sodas at their local ice cream parlor.

What the hell, I whipped out my harmonica and played along as Szell conducted Tchaikovsky with his right hand and flat C# me with his playful left. "Music has rhythm," he said."You do not have it yet." I stopped playing. The lights, Tchaikovsky and Szell said it all. Lucky Levine didn't stop the opera world thanks Szell. And Time used their favorite frame I'd shot for their cover artist.

Printed with permission.

If you can't wait until this time every week to get your Art Shay fix, please check out the photographer's blog, which is updated regularly. Art Shay's book, Chicago’s Nelson Algren, is also available at Amazon.