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Maurice D. Robertson's Photos Capture City's Vibrant Jazz Scene

Owen McNally

May 09, 2010

No jazz concert in the Hartford area seems complete without omnipresent photographer Maurice D. Robertson, a subtle, quick-witted craftsman with a low-key presence and an extraordinary eye for capturing the spirit of the moment and the humanity of the performer.

His work ranges from celebrating patterns in nature to candid street portraits from the United States to the Caribbean, Brazil and North Africa.

But Robertson is best known for his evocative jazz photography.

His own image as an ecumenical advocate of improvisational music, both old and new, has also been burnished by his work as a sophisticated radio show host on WWUH-FM (91.3) since 1976. (His "Accent on Jazz" airs Wednesdays from 9 p.m. to around midnight.)

Since the early 1980s, thousands of Hartford jazz fans have seen Robertson in action as a considerate photographer on the scene, the antithesis of the jazz paparazzi, always showing the utmost respect for the performer and the audience while industriously shooting an event.

In a characteristic move, the lithe photographer, who's extremely supple from 35 years of Hatha yoga practice, moves crab-like down the aisle and maneuvers unobtrusively on stage to get that next great shot.

In a 40-piece sampler of the award-winning photographer's work, the Artists Collective, as part of its " Jackie McLean International Arts Festival," is presenting "Expressions in Sounds and Motion: Photographs by Maurice Robertson," a free gallery exhibition running through Sept. 16.

Focusing primarily on Robertson's jazz images, the show will be celebrated at a free reception Thursday from 5 to 8 p.m. at the Artists Collective, 1200 Albany Ave., Hartford. Gallery hours are Tuesday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Playing with light, shadow and substance, the photographer has captured iconic images of such jazz heroes as Miles Davis, Art Blakey, Dizzy Gillespie, Yusef Lateef, Eddie Henderson, Ahmad Jamal, Sonny Rollins and Jackie McLean, the legendary alto saxophonist/composer who, along with his wife, Dollie, co-founded the Artists Collective.

Filled with surprise, Robertson's images both celebrate and preserve fleeting existential moments.

The princely image of Miles Davis, for example, has him emerging mysteriously from darkness, illuminated by the halo-like bell of his muted horn. Generating a golden aura, the almost image transforms the charismatic trumpeter into a jazz Tutankhamen.

A portrait of Sonny Rollins, with his tousled gray hair and beard and his regal head bent in concentration, makes him look like a Biblical patriarch, a truth-seeker immersed in a moment of creation.

Omar Sosa, the cutting-edge Cuban piano wizard in his priestly white regalia, is dramatically caught in a freeze-frame shot, his right hand poised above the keyboard.

Robertson whose work breathes with a subtle spirituality, likes to portray musicians in meditative moments on and off stage.

In one remarkable, never to be repeated moment, his camera catches Art Blakey sitting serenely at his drum kit just before a concert, gazing enigmatically into space, looking like a mountain-top guru or a wise, wrinkled Buddha.

Besides creating striking, straight-on portraits of the artist, Robertson likes to focus on individual objects, be it an isolated trumpet bell caressing a stark microphone, or a percussionist's expressive hands playing Afro-Cuban music on an exotic drum. These tight shots function as visual metaphors, focusing on pure form.

"I like to play with shutter speeds to give a little more drama ... and to get a sense of the sound waves, so to speak. Working with light is a very metaphysical and spiritual experience," Robertson says.

"I've trained my eye more over the last couple years to catch a little more of the humanity and intimacy and the rapport that musicians have," he says.

Born in Jamaica, Robertson has lived in Hartford since arriving in 1954 at 6 months old with his Cuban father, Behelio "Bob" Robertson, and his Jamaican mother, Pauline.

His jazz- and camera-loving father, a native of Esmeralda, Cuba, died in 2001. His mother remains active and last Sunday walked with her son in the March Against Hunger.

Growing up with nearly every kind of music, from Rollins to reggae, Miles to Mantovani, Robertson attended Barbour Elementary School and the old Weaver High School on Ridgefield Street, graduating in 1971. He majored in English at the University of Connecticut, where he began his college radio career before graduating in 1975.

Interested in all arts, from dance to theater, Robertson was well known in the area two decades ago as a flute-playing member of the Hartford-based People of Goodwill, which celebrated the musical heritage of the African Diaspora.

Following the advice of his wife some years ago, Robertson set aside the flute and focused on the camera.

The music world's loss was the photography world's gain.

MAURICE D. ROBERTSON's photography is on display through Sept. 16 at the Artists Collective, 1200 Albany Ave., Hartford. For information on Robertson's work, go to www.myspace.com/mdrobertsonphotoarts or Facebook Maurice D. Robertson. Robertson also conducts personal tours of his Hartford studio. For an appointment, e-mail donaldojamaica@yahoo.com, or call 860-724-3977.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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