Go to 913 Broad St. in Newark, and you won’t find anything too remarkable. It’s a typical intersection in the heart of New Jersey’s biggest city. There’s a small bank, a chicken shack, a tutoring service, a hovering sense of things coming into being. But a half century ago, there was a nightclub on the corner of Broad and Green, and it was a cornerstone of local jazz culture.
Sugar Hill wasn’t large — it could accommodate about 150 listeners. Nevertheless, in April 1957, it hosted one of the great artists of the 20th century: a singer whose phrasing, inflections and relationship with her accompanists continue to be emulated by musicians working in all styles. By ’57, Billie Holiday had been performing for decades, and she’d influenced just about every major pop singer in America. Nobody knew it during her weeklong stand at Sugar Hill, but she only had two years left to live.
It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that the photographs of Holiday taken by Jerry Dantzic are nearly as influential. His moody, empathetic shots of the singer showed a generation of pop documentarians how to approach a club gig: Don’t use a flash, work with available light, generate a dreamlike state, and make the artist appear to be a supernatural force. Make the singer’s face hover like a disc, shining in a pool of absolute blackness, spellbinding and irreducible.
Dantzic also takes us backstage and shows us the star as she’s getting ready for her performance, and leads us through the streets of Newark as she and the Sugar Hill promoter greet fans. We’re introduced to Holiday’s husband — a glowering, dangerous presence indeed — and we’re shown the artist in reasonably high spirits, socializing with friends and playing with her chihuahua. Dantzic’s shots are some of the most famous in jazz history, but even if you’re familiar with them, it’s still an illuminating, revelatory experience to see them at the Newark Museum of Art in “Billie Holiday at Sugar Hill: Photographs by Jerry Dantzic,” which will be on display through Aug. 21.
The exhibition is of obvious interest to Lady Day fanatics, jazz listeners, and those with an interest in visual biography and the subtle costs of celebrity. But this is also a show about Newark — and as a show about Newark it is, perhaps, most penetrating and resonant.
Many fans of popular music know Holiday’s story, and can see the astounding beauty and terrible pain that Dantzic’s lens captures. Too few recall Newark’s jazz history. “Holiday at Sugar Hill” and its accompanying (and contextualizing) show “Jazz Greats: Classic Photographs from the Bank of America Collection” feels like a sharp reminder. New Jersey’s first city was, as author and journalist Barbara J. Kukla writes in “Swing City: Newark Nightlife 1926-50,” once bursting at its borders with jazz. There were places to play, and local luminaries, and press notice — and there were musicians everywhere.
One striking thing about the photos, some of which capture big bands, in the “Jazz Greats” segment of the show is how different popular music-making was during the first half of the twentieth century. There were no home recording options; no solitary auteurs rhyming in basements over machine beats. In order to make jazz work, players with horns and other instruments had to congregate, in person and in considerable numbers. That’s a communitarian project, sometimes done in spite of the musicians’ evident preference for solitude, creative autonomy and self-assertion. Jazz, the exhibit suggests, is music that we make with our buddies and that is heard in crowded, overheated clubs by ecstatic patrons, whose dancing and celebrating spill out from dive doors to busy intersections.
That sounds like a cinematic fantasy. But Newark was, undeniably, once one of those cities. “Jazz Greats” includes a giant, fascinating wall map of ghost venues, many of them on streets that have since been renamed or reconfigured. Lights that once burned bright in the Essex County night have since blinked out. This helps explain why a world-famous artist like Holiday would consent to perform in a small room on Broad Street. It’s the same reason Bruce Springsteen kept showing up at the Stone Pony: Just as roughneck Asbury Park provided an ideal backdrop for The Boss’ storytelling, Broad Street was a focus of jazz activity and a natural place for Lady Day to hang out.
In 1957, Holiday was down on her luck: The addictions and legal troubles that would eventually cost her her life had already slowed her and dimmed her commercial prospects. But she was still a giant of American popular music, one of the few singers whom Frank Sinatra always cited as an influence. Dantzic’s photographs of her on the sidewalks of downtown Newark do not look like portraits of visiting royalty. They feel like shots of a working musician headed to a gig, secure in her talent and her marks of distinction but very much a practitioner of a living art form, ready to step in front of a microphone in a logical place for her to be.
If there were signs of weariness on that face, and a tacit recognition of a coming disaster … well, hard times were coming for Newark and Essex County, too. That’s captured in Dantzic’s unflinching photographs. In their occasional seediness, they show us where Newark was headed. In their undeniable grandeur, dignity and richness, they remind us of what Newark is, and has always been.
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