Words - Personality Stories - The Willoughby phenomenon (1995)


The Willoughby phenomenon (1995)

A young photographer dedicated to jazz and dance in the early 1950’s, Los Angeles born Bob Willoughby at sixty-eight is resident in France. After half a life-time of work as the first ‘Hollywood Special’ photographer and a decade or two working on photographic art and cultural projects in Europe, German jazz buffs in the ‘90’s, insisted that he looks again at his first love.

Considered, in 1990, by judges at a European Book Publisher’ convention in Leipzig, Bob Willoughby’s picture book, ‘Jazz in LA’, published by Nieswand Verlag GmbH, was voted the Silver Medal as most beautiful German publishers’ book in the world. Even outgoing veteran Bob Willoughby blanched a little as he was described by them as the elder statesman of jazz photographers.

Not having taken a jazz picture for some forty years, he felt the claim might just have been a slight exaggeration. After all, Los Angeles never claimed to be in the mainstream of contemporary jazz venues; although many of the great names showed their faces there, in hope, rather than anticipation of a
Hollywood film debut. But there they were, in a king-size book, page after page of emotive black and white images, printed with great care, full of fire and creative subtlety, that proved Willoughby’s creative connection with the all-time ‘greats’.

As he escaped to the sanity of his home on the Cote d’Azure, he reflected on the irony of shedding forty years of his working life in a single day of German publishers’ adulation. Returning to his work on other picture book projects, he had been quite prepared to simply file the experience away in his bank of professional memories. However, calls from a German TV company, who wanted to make a film about him and his work, then a German jazz festival promoter seeking his services, changed all that.

At the time, he sat with his wife, Dorothy, on their sun-lit terrace, looking out on the distant Mediterranean, ruminating on those early days. Memories of his original love of jazz came flooding back - and the way in which concentration on his photography shuttered out the music, but gave him all the warmth and pleasure of working amongst the brilliant jazz musicians he revered.

Always standing back from actual involvement with the performers, seldom setting up his pictures, his professionalism was appreciated by the big names in jazz when he shot pictures at The Shrine Auditorium, ‘Jazz at the Philharmonic’ and at a host of more intimate LA jazz venues. First, he worked with an old Speed-Graphic press camera then, discovering the virtues of the 35mm format, his library of the jazz ‘greats’ grew fast.

Sad Billie Holliday, ebullient Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins, Dave Brubeck, ‘Duke’ Ellington, Gerry Mulligan, Benny Goodman and the rest, were in many ways the young Willoughby’s passport to the wider world of magazine photography. It was a time, after all, when weekly and monthly news picture magazines were still essential reading for the population of the US, and the rest of the world.

Seldom able to sell his pictures, but excited by his experiences, Willoughby put on an exhibition of his jazz and dance pictures in Hollywood. They were seen by Charles Block, head of the Globe picture agency, who took a set of pictures to Harpers Bazaar in New York. That was the start of something big. Learning fast about picture sales from his association with Globe, the assignments came flooding in. Quite soon, he was Harpers’ man on the West Coast. A fast learner, Willoughby soon decided to sell his pictures direct to the magazines.

It was magazine commissions that introduced him to work on Hollywood film sets; then to substantial contracts to shoot ‘special’ stills, (he was the first of the distinguished genre) that enabled him to sell exclusive images to national and international magazines, starved of ‘real’ pictures stories on the ‘stars’.

A cool hundred films later, with a growing family, he shook the stardust of the Hollywood glitterati from his camera-bag and move to Ireland to ensure that his children received a sane education and a fresh start in life, away from the unreality of California’s perpetual sunshine.

From there, the south of France was a natural choice for a hard working retirement. A brilliant photographic printer, as well as a dedicated photographer of genuine beauty, wherever he travelled he appreciated women’s natural grace and charm in front of his camera. Photographing them with sensitivity and good taste, it seems to be his ‘gut’ reaction to years of contact with Hollywood manufactured glamour.

Then, like a sweet repeating dream, the European jazz scene beckoned. The Willoughby phenomenon awoke. Packing his camera-bags, he travelled North. Walking on to the vast, echoing stage as rehearsals for the Jazz Gipfel ‘92 in Stuttgart were about to get under way, for the first time in forty years, he saw the late Gerry Mulligan. Stopping in his tracks, Willoughby called, “Gerry! You’ve gone white!”. The great jazzman looked studiously over his glasses and said quietly, “Bob! That’s a terrible thing to say to a ‘sax’ player!”.

Bob Willoughby, jazz phenomenon, was back home.

© Copyright John Chillingworth