Photographer Lee Santa’s “Journey Into Jazz”

February 5th, 2017

Ravi Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders, at the PDX (Portland) Jazz Festival

February, 2016

Photo by Lee Santa




In the introduction to his book Journey Into Jazz, photographer Lee Santa shares his earliest and fascinating experiences with jazz music…A sampling of his photographs follow.




I’m not a musician. I’m not a music critic. And you’ll soon find out I’m not a writer. I am simply a fan of jazz who is also a photographer.


Though I didn’t know what it was called at the time, my earliest recollection of jazz was growing up in 1950s Indiana. My father had a couple of LP albums I liked listening to; one was by Stan Kenton and the other was the sound track from the film The Glenn Miller Story, which had James Stewart and June Allison on the cover.


My interest in jazz and music didn’t really begin until after moving to Sacramento, California. Our home had a basement where my father set up a work bench. We fooled around with electronics; dad repaired our TV and radio when they occasionally blinkered out, and I experimented with a variety of projects. Above the work bench my father placed an FM radio he had salvaged. Using that radio I learned about jazz by listening to a Sacramento FM station located in the Elks Building in downtown Sacramento. Its call letters may have been KHIQ. Whatever station it was, it was in business prior to KZAP, which followed it at the same location.


During my sophomore or junior year in high school I first heard Dave Brubeck and became a fan. It wasn’t long before I began frequenting Sacramento record stores. My favorites were Tower Records (which was the very first one and located in the same building as the Tower Theater), Pacific Records downtown on J Street, and another downtown on K Street. Around this time I joined the Columbia Record Club and subscribed to Down Beat magazine.


The first LP album I purchased was Gone with the Wind by the Dave Brubeck Quartet and the second was the Miles Davis album Kind of Blue featuring John Coltrane.  Because of Kind of Blue, I became a huge fan of John Coltrane.


Down Beat magazine and ESP records helped me discover musicians such as Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, Eric Dolphy, Sun Ra, Sunny Murray, Milford Graves, Jackie McLean, Don Pullen and Albert Ayler.


Around 1961 I saw the Dave Brubeck Quartet at the Sacramento Memorial Auditorium, the first jazz concert I ever attended. The first half of the program the quartet played with the Sacramento Symphony under the direction of Howard Brubeck, Dave’s brother. The second half of the program featured just the quartet.


Fifteen minutes prior to the scheduled start of the concert, I decided to go backstage with some LP albums to gather autographs. Off to stage right was a room where Brubeck and the rest of the quartet (Paul Desmond, Gene Wright and Joe Morello) and others were busy preparing for the concert. Holding my albums, I walked part way into the room. I was quite nervous and had no idea how I was going to penetrate the situation. Since everyone was so busy it seemed like I was unnoticed.


Standing alone on the right side of the room was Desmond who looked lost in deep introspection or meditation.


I stood there for what seemed to be an eternity, wondering what to do, when Desmond casually walked across the room and simply stood next to me without saying a word.


At the time I didn’t understand what Mr. Desmond had done for me. I seized the opportunity and ask him for his autograph. It would be a few years before I was able to recognize the implication of Desmond’s gesture. The beauty of that moment, his friendly gesture, will never be lost for me. I only regret that I did not understand it at the time so I could have told him so.


Shortly after graduating from high school, I grew a goatee and starting going to a jazz club in Sacramento called the Gilded Cage. It primarily featured local talent, with the first big names I saw there being Chico Hamilton and Gabor Szabo.


In February 1964, while working for a can manufacturing company in Sacramento, a coworker named Rick introduced me to marijuana. Because we both liked Mose Allison, he decided to see if I would like to try it. After smoking his pot we hopped into my ’39 Buick and headed for skid row, which is now a tourist trap called Old Town Sacramento. While driving I said to Rick, “I don’t feel anything.” He said, “If you don’t feel anything, why are you only going 5 miles per hour?”


On March 27, 1964 some friends of mine and I heard of the Alaska earthquake and decided to go to Frisco to watch the tidal wave come in. It was a non-event and since we had smoked some pot the screaming munchies soon overtook us and we decided to get something to eat at Old Chelsea Fish and Chips, across the street from City Lights Books on Columbus Ave., in North Beach. After having some fish and chips I left my friends and went around the corner to the Jazz Workshop on Broadway to see who was playing. I was thrilled to see it was one of my favorites, Jackie McLean. I was there about an hour until my friends came and took me away.


In March of 1965 I took a bus to Mexico City. While there, I saw The Modern Jazz Quartet at the Palace of Fine Arts. Upon returning from Mexico I received my draft notice and decided to join the Army so I could get the kind of training I wanted. After leaving the Oakland Induction Center, where I was given a physical and a written test (AFQT), I took a bus to San Francisco to see who was playing at the Jazz Workshop. That night I saw Thelonious Monk, another of my favorites.


I concluded my basic training at Fort Ord, California in June and drove to Fort Gordon, Georgia (about ten miles from Augusta) where I received my AIT (advanced individual training). While stationed at Fort Gordon I became friends with cousins of two of my favorite pianists, Andrew Hill and Herbie Hancock. Herbie’s cousin Bill and I were in the same barracks. I believe I met Andrew’s cousin, whose name I don’t recall, at the base service club while listening to jazz records.


After AIT I shipped out to Germany in January of 1966 and was stationed there for 26 months, first at Bad Kreuznach, then Baumholder, then Bad Kreuznach again. I was assigned to the 708th Maintenance Battalion, 8th Army Division.


Prior to shipping out to Germany I took a bus to New York City for some jazz. I was there for a few days and stayed at the Sloan House YMCA on 34th Street. Those few days were, to that point, the best jazz experience of my life. I saw Miles Davis (The Village Vanguard), Charles Mingus (The Five Spot), Bill Evans (The Village Gate), Jackie Byard/Dave Pike (The Village Gate) and Gabor Szabo/Charles Lloyd (Slug’s Saloon).


While stationed in Germany I continued receiving Down Beat and continued to increase my record collection. One of these albums was a concert at Yale University by Don Pullen and Milford Graves. Down Beat gave the contact info for ordering the album, which was sent directly to me by Pullen himself. The album cover was hand painted by Graves and is one of only a hundred he did.


While in Europe I managed to see several jazz greats. First, in 1966 I saw Ted Curson and Cecil Taylor in the Latin Quarter of Paris and Kenny Clarke at the Paris Blue Note. As it turned out 1966 was my best year for seeing so many jazz greats. Sometime in 1967 I purchased a Pentax Spotmatic, my first SLR. The first pictures I ever took of jazz musicians were with this camera, capturing Dexter Gordon and Johnny Griffin at the Cafe Montmartre in Copenhagen, Denmark.


After returning to the states and getting my discharge at Fort Dix, New Jersey, April, 1968, I caught a Greyhound to New York City and stayed at the Sloan House again. My trip to NYC was to take in some jazz and art museums. As far as I can remember the only jazz I saw this time in NYC was Alice Coltrane’s “Cosmic Concert” at Carnegie Hall on Easter Sunday, 1968, in a show featuring Pharoah Sanders, Joe Henderson, Reggie Workman and Jack DeJohnette. While in the lobby of Carnegie Hall prior to the concert I met Albert Ayler and his brother Don handing out flyers for a concert, more about that later.


My life at times has been a wild ride and that is what one tends to remember. Who wants to remember the boring shit, right? So here it is. Some of it may not appear to be directly related to jazz, but may give you a clue as to who I am in the context of a life heavily influenced by jazz’s sounds, structures and impressions.








From Journey Into Jazz, by Lee Santa






Photographs by Lee Santa



Mose Allison




Rahsaan Roland Kirk




Dexter Gordon




Ornette Coleman




Pharoah Sanders





Ahmad Jamal





Click here for more photos by Lee Santa





Share this:

Comment on this article:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

In This Issue

Michael Cuscuna, Mosaic Records co-founder, is interviewed about his successful career as a jazz producer, discographer, and entrepreneur...Also in this issue, in celebration of Blue Note’s 80th year, we asked prominent writers and musicians the following question: “What are 4 or 5 of your all-time favorite Blue Note albums; a new collection of jazz poetry; “On the Turntable,” is a new playlist of 18 recently released jazz recordings from six artists – Joshua Redman, Joe Lovano, Matt Brewer, Tom Harrell, Zela Margossian and Aaron Burnett; two new podcasts by Bob Hecht; a new “Jazz History Quiz”; a new feature called “Pressed for All Time,”; a new photo-narrative by Charles Ingham; and…lots more.

On the Turntable

This month, a playlist of 18 recently released jazz recordings by six artists -- Joshua Redman, Joe Lovano. Matt Brewer, Tom Harrell, Zela Margossian, and Aaron Burnett


In this month’s collection, with great jazz artists at the core of their work, 16 poets remember, revere, ponder, laugh, dream, and listen

The Joys of Jazz

In this new volume of his podcasts, Bob presents two stories, one on Clifford Brown (featuring the trumpeter Charlie Porter) and the other is part two of his program on stride piano, including a conversation with Mike Lipskin

Short Fiction

Short Fiction Contest-winning story #51 — “Crossing the Ribbon,” by Linnea Kellar

“What are 4 or 5 of your all-time favorite Blue Note albums?”

Dianne Reeves, Nate Chinen, Gary Giddins, Michael Cuscuna, Eliane Elias and Ashley Kahn are among the 12 writers, musicians, and music executives who list and write about their favorite Blue Note albums

Pressed for All Time

In an excerpt from his book Pressed for All Time, Michael Jarrett interviews producer Creed Taylor about how he came to use tape overdubs during the 1957 Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross Sing a Song of Basie recording session


“Thinking about the Truesdells” — a photo-narrative by Charles Ingham

Jazz History Quiz #128

Although he was famous for modernizing the sound of the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra -- “On the Sunny Side of the Street” was his biggest hit while working for Dorsey (pictured) -- this arranger will forever be best-known for his work with the Jimmie Lunceford Orchestra. Who is he?

Great Encounters

In this edition, Bob Dylan recalls what Thelonious Monk told him about music at New York’s Blue Note club in c. 1961.


Jerry Jazz Musician regularly publishes a series of posts featuring excerpts of the photography and stories/captions found in Jazz in Available Light by Veryl Oakland. In this edition, Mr. Oakland's photographs and stories feature Stan Getz, Sun Ra, and Carla Bley.


Maxine Gordon, author of Sophisticated Giant: The Life and Legacy of Dexter Gordon, discusses her late husband’s complex, fascinating life.

Cover Stories with Paul Morris

In this edition, Paul writes about jazz album covers that offer glimpses into intriguing corners of the culture of the 1950’s

Coming Soon

"The Photography Issue" will feature an interview with jazz photographer Carol Friedman (her photo of Wynton Marsalis is pictured), as well as with Michael Cuscuna on unreleased photos by Blue Note's Francis Wolff.

In the previous issue

Jeffrey Stewart, National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The New Negro: The Life of Alain Locke, is interviewed about Locke (pictured), the father of the Harlem Renaissance. Also in this issue…A new collection of jazz poetry; "On the Turntable," a new playlist of 19 recommended recordings by five jazz artists; three new podcasts by Bob Hecht; a new “Great Encounters”; several short stories; the photography of Veryl Oakland and Charles Ingham; a new Jazz History Quiz; and lots more…

Contributing writers

Site Archive