John Rogers takes the pulse of a scene, and a city, in his book 'Old and New Dreams'
"By far the greatest time of my life," says John Rogers of the nearly two-decade span he spent obsessively chronicling the New York City jazz scene — as a photographer, a club fixture, and a friend to many a musician. "It was just something I'm so glad I did."
If it feels a little disconcerting to hear Rogers describe that period in the past tense... well, we've been living through a disconcerting age. When the coronavirus pandemic brought the city's pulse to a standstill a little over two years ago, Rogers was among the millions of New Yorkers to be forced into an uneasy, provisional mode of existence.
His friend and fellow photographer, 2017 MacArthur Fellow Dawoud Bey, puts it succinctly in the introduction to Old and New Dreams, Rogers' poignant new photo book: "John, alone among everyone I know, clearly and with great prescience saw the full and catastrophic weight of this pandemic coming before it even fully hit."
With the jazz community in New York, Rogers is known for his close friendships with musicians, including saxophonists Ornette Coleman and Yusef Lateef. (He wrote touchingly about his history with Lateef for NPR Music, after the multi-instrumentalist died in 2013. Two years later, he did the same for Coleman.) Both artists naturally appear in Old and New Dreams, whose title seems to nod toward a group convened in Coleman's honor, in the 1970s. But Rogers emphasizes that he was thinking more literally about the phrase, and how it pertains to his life and work before and after pandemic disruption.
So "old dreams" would be, you know, coming to New York as a teenager, a young person, wanting to be a photographer and document music and doing that for a long time until the pandemic started as sort of a dividing line, as it were. And then into a "new dream," where the live music stuff is not really an option for me anymore, and hasn't been for the past few years for many people. And that developed this new dream of like, "How am I going to survive? What am I going to do?" So I just decided to go out and work every day by taking street photography and looking that as making work and just sort of focusing on that to stay sane and having a coping mechanism for all the negative things that have been happening. And through that, I got a lot better as a photographer, as a result of just going out and doing that every day.
Rogers' COVID-era street scenes, which he began capturing in the summer of 2020, impart a deeply reflective tone to the book. There’s melancholy in it, but also an almost spiritual calm, which echoed Rogers’ experience riding around the five boroughs on his bicycle. "Outside of all the negative aspects of the pandemic, just getting to experience New York empty like that was incredible," Rogers says. "It was an interesting time — even though it was really scary and depressing, and all the other things — just to have some moment of beauty and that all the madness that was going on. So I was glad I was able to document that in some way."
Bey, celebrated for his own street photography, observes in the book that Rogers' new pictures "stand as an engaging statement and testimony to a city whose beating heart will not soon be extinguished, though it appears to be forever transformed."
By interspersing these street images with shots of jazz musicians at work or in repose, Rogers and his editor, Daniel Ramos, create a captivating flow in the book. Photographs taken years ago resonate in a new way — sometimes evoking a sense of loss, as in a conversational huddle between Coleman and the composer-conductor Butch Morris, who died in 2013. Sometimes they simply speak of quiet contemplation, as in an image of saxophonist Ravi Coltrane onstage at The Village Vanguard. (That shot, like several others in the book, is a vestige of Rogers' work with WBGO and NPR.)
The overall effect rings personal and true, speaking to Rogers' place within the ecology of New York and its jazz community. "People have often told me that the photographs I take of musicians that I'm really respectful of, and close friends with, look different than those that I don't know as well," he says. Old and New Dreams opens and closes with portraits of two drummer-composers who have meant a lot to him: Newark’s own Tyshawn Sorey, and the late Paul Motian.
Rogers considers Old and New Dreams a personal turning point, but at some point, he hopes to bring his refreshed and sharpened eye back to the bandstand. Only time will tell. "I haven't been to a club yet, and I don't see that happening anytime soon," he says. "But you know, I got to do that more than most people do in their whole life."
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