Please go here to read part 1 of my interview with Joseph Crachiola.
It sounds like for most of your life you’ve identified primarily as a photographer rather than as a musician, or am I misreading that?
Well, I don’t know. Photography was my career, it paid my bills. I’m grateful for that, it was a great career. But I’ve been playing music since I was a kid, I was playing sax when I was 10, played in the school band and all that, I started playing the guitar when I was about 15. It was one of those things, it was the 60s, I heard the Beatles and all that stuff and it was like, ‘I’ve got to get a guitar, man.’ So I started playing in rock bands, so my whole life I was playing bar gigs, wedding gigs, whatever I could do. At some point—I still play the guitar, but when I was in my teens and my early twenties, the guitar sort of dominated everything. As I got into my twenties I started expanding my musical horizons, I started listening to blues and jazz and all that stuff and I started playing sax again. I sort of played both all along, and at times the guitar would dominate and other times the sax would dominate, it would just depend who I was playing with. But it was always something I did on the weekends because I had a career, I had a family. I don’t know if I ever thought of doing it as a living, other than when I was a teenager and I thought I might be a rock star. But it was always just a passion. I knew I could make money at photography. The nice thing about not being a professional musician, to me, was I could play what I wanted to play on my terms. I never had to compromise myself. So after I retired, I sort of threw myself back into the music again. I kept doing the photography but actually, what happened was—this is sort of cool—I retired from that corporate job and I was doing some freelancing around Detroit and teaching. One of the things I was doing, I was the in-house photographer for the Detroit Symphony, which was really cool. It was another one of those gigs where I didn’t make a lot of money but I was in that orchestra hall all the time and listening to all this great music and they would pay me to shoot and they would say, ‘Anytime you want to go to a concert, it’s on the house.’ So I could hear all this great music whenever I wanted to. The DSO had a youth symphony—they had a youth classical orchestra and they had a youth jazz orchestra. I was talking to one of the conductors and I said, ‘I’ve been playing rock and roll my whole life and always wanted to get more serious about music. I’d really like to play more jazz.’ It was kind of like the thing with Stackman—he said, ‘This is the guy you need to talk to.’ He gave me a phone number for this guy, a guy named George Benson—not the guitar player, a sax player, they called him George Saxophone Benson, a Detroit jazz icon but he’s probably not known much outside Detroit. George did session work with Motown back in the day, he played with Aretha Franklin, he played in all kinds of big bands. George is probably about 85 now. But anyway, he gave me George’s phone number and says, ‘Call him up, tell him you want to take some lessons.’ It was kind of like the thing with Stackman—for about a year I just went over to George’s house every couple weeks. He made me read music and practice scales and learn how to improvise. So it was after I retired from the corporate gig when I had the time, my kids had grown up, I just had the time to really get into it. I think maybe I always wanted to be a musician, I guess I never had the nerve to take the leap. Photography was a good career for me, a check every week, and now I have a pension and health insurance and stuff. I’m fully aware of how lucky I am. It’s an interesting parallel between the two.
In my experience, writing and photography are the two forms I express myself through, and for me anyway, they’re kind of complementary. Do you see it that way with music and photography?
You know, it’s interesting and I suppose it’s not all that unusual, that people who are involved in one art form to be involved in others as well. I was just reading an interview with Marcus Miller … He’s one of these people I knew about, he’s this monster bassist, I saw him recently when I was in Italy. It was Marcus Miller, Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter. They did a tribute to Miles Davis and they had this young trumpeter named Sean Jones, who I had never heard of, who I’m now finding out is considered one of the best jazz trumpeters, up and coming, in the world. But I was reading an interview with Marcus Miller and he said, ‘I’m involved in photography and I’m involved in …’ I guess this kind of stuff is not that unusual. To me, I probably approach the two similarly, I think in my photography there’s a lot of improvisation that goes into it, just the way I shoot, kind of a street shooter by the seat of my pants, I don’t plan anything. So there’s probably some parallels there in terms of my interest in jazz and how I shoot.
Right now I try to play as much as I can. I try to practice a couple hours every day. I feel like I should be practicing 5 or 6 or 7 hours a day if I ever really want to be good. I’ve got to be realistic, though. I’m not some up-and-coming next something. I just want to be a good musician. So I try to practice a few hours every day, I do scales, practice reading my sheet music, I’ll pull charts out of a book and just play them. I sort of have this goal of the kind of player I want to be.
How would you describe that?
Well, in terms of technique, I really feel I need my technique to be better. That’s why I’m always practicing scales. I think when I was a rock musician it was more about—probably my technique wasn’t that good but I just played with a lot of energy. That was one of the first things I learned when I was taking lessons from that guy in Detroit. I remember one time I was at George’s house—he was a sax player, a clarinet player, flute player, all this stuff, and I’d go to his house and he’d put music in front of me and then he’d sit down and play the piano. And he’d say, ‘Plays this, play the music that’s written. Play it twice. After two times through improvise off that. And then when you’ve run out of stuff to play, go back and play the sheet music again and that way I’ll know that you’re about done.’ I remember one time I was playing and I thought I had played this really good solo and when it was done, he said, ‘You know, that kind of stuff might work with your rock band. But it ain’t right.’ That’s when I started thinking, ‘It’s good to play with all this energy but I need to really work on my technique and get my tone down.’ So that’s the kind of stuff I’m really trying to work on now. I spend a lot of time just working on basics, stuff I should’ve done 40 years ago. I guess that’s what I want to do musically. I just want to be the best player I can be. There’s certain styles of music that I’m drawn to that I want to play. I love the brass band stuff, but I think my heart and soul is still kind of with more modern jazz and R & B and Blues and that stuff. So I’d like to find more gigs doing that stuff. I’ve been playing with band, I love this band, it’s called Dr. Funk. It’s guitar, bass player, drummer and two other horn players. They write most of their own stuff and it’s all these drawn out jams with lots of improvisation, but the horn parts, like when we’re playing the melody we do these really tight funky horn parts. I want to do more of that stuff. And I’ve been playing with J.D. Hill, a Blues harmonica player, and that’s kind of just like Chicago style Blues. I want to keep doing that stuff. But I need to emphasize something about the brass band music. While it’s not that complex, in terms of structure, there are some really tricky rhythms. It’s easy to underestimate the complexity of New Orleans music because it’s so much fun and it makes you feel so good. But it’s not as easy as it looks. I have a tremendous amount of respect for the guys who play that stuff and I continue to learn from them. With the photography, I just want to keep doing what I’m doing, put the work out there. I mean, I’d love to be able to sell some of my work and make money at it, but it’s hard to be an artist. When I came here, after the newspaper career and the corporate career, I kind of looked into doing some commercial work here at first and I realized the market is so different here than Detroit. Detroit we made pretty good money and it’s not the same down here.
New Orleans is a very small city.
Yeah, it’s a small community and I know there’s a handful of guys who are from here and have been working here a long time. I’m not going to compete with them. So I’ll just do my art, do what I do. Just have fun with it and if I can make a little money with it, that’s cool, but I’d rather just, after all those years of doing what other people wanted me to do, do my own thing. I like being involved in the music aspect of it. I had a lot of fun in Italy photographing the jazz festival there. It was a ball, but I love going to these little clubs like Bullet’s, and just shooting on the streets. I guess it’s all been done, in a way. I suppose you can always find your own take.
It sounds like you’ve walked into a lot of great situations.
Yeah, I’ve been really lucky. Like I told you earlier, when I shoot musicians I’m very careful about respecting them, making sure they know what I’m doing and why I’m doing it and I make sure that they get a few prints. You know, I always give Benny pictures if I shoot the Treme guys. I gave Kermit a bunch of pictures when I was hanging around Bullet’s all the time. So they all know me, they know that I have no hidden agenda. I guess that’s something I learned during my newspaper career. If you’re really going to get good work, you’ve got to have some kind of trust with the people you’re shooting, if you’re going to have work that’s going to have some intimacy. I did the same thing with the burlesque. We had this agreement where they would let me shoot whatever I wanted. I could walk in the dressing room and shoot if I wanted to. But up front I said, ‘I’m not going to put these pictures on Facebook or anyplace unless you see them first and you know it’s cool.’ After a while, it was like, ‘Yeah, you can do whatever you want. We know you’re not going to jerk us around.’ I like doing these things—that was one of the reasons I left the newspaper business, you’re always like hit and run, you never get any real depth. So now I can work on something for months and months at a time. I like doing that sort of documentary stuff.
What part of town do you go to shoot?
Oh, all over the place. I’ve been down in the Lower Ninth, Upper Ninth, Seventh Ward, Sixth Ward, just wherever. I have a couple friends who like to go to second-lines so for a while there it was just a weekly thing. I’d get an email from someone saying, ‘Okay, here’s where the second-line is this week.’ We’d carpool so we’d park one car. Shot a lot of that stuff. I don’t know that what I’m doing—It’s probably nothing that hasn’t been done before. It’s pretty well traveled but I’m just having a lot of fun.
It’s still fun to do—and it’s a physical challenge. You’ve got to keep moving.
Yeah, it’s kind of a throwback to my newspaper days. But what I’ve gotten to is, for a while—I also own two of the original Cannon 5Ds and a couple lenses. I’ve got some nice gear—but it was my work all those years, but I’ve gotten to the point now I shoot almost everything with the Leica and the 35 mm lens.
I see why.
It’s simpler, it’s faster, nobody knows I’m there half the time. Most people would look at that little camera—
Looks like a point-and-shoot.
Yeah, you see all these guys with these big lenses and stuff, and I can just get in real close. What I’ve learned to do is—I used to do this years ago with a wide angle and shooting outdoors you can set the camera at f8 or f11, focus it at about 10 feet, and everything’s sharp. You don’t have to focus much, just shoot. For some things I’ll use the other cameras, it just depends what it is.
Have you brought cameras with you on gigs at all or parades, as you’re playing?
Yeah, sometimes. This other camera I have, a Panasonic Lumix, a 10 and a half megapixel with a Leica lens on it. I did a lot of research on this and Leica makes, I think theirs is called Digilux, it’s a point and shoot, effectively a 24 to 90 zoom, an f2 lens, and it’s like about 900 bucks for this little point and shoot. Well, there’s a Panasonic that is virtually—what I found out was Panasonic make all these cameras. They make it for Leica and of course the Leica has the little red dot on it and it’s 900 bucks. And the Panasonic doesn’t have a red dot on it and it’s 500 bucks. So I bought one of those—I carry that around with me a lot, I stick it in my pocket, still have my horn and sometimes at the Candlelight and the band’s playing and I’m just sitting, someone else is doing a solo or something, I’ll just flip the camera out (and take a few shots).
For a while—I haven’t done a lot of it lately—I got into shooting burlesque, it was really a trip. That was another one, about a year-and-a-half ago, I guess, this friend of mine—in fact, it was the same guy who took me to the Candlelight (the first time)—he said, ‘Yeah, we’re doing to see some burlesque.’ ‘Burlesque?’ I knew what it was, but I’d never seen real burlesque, it was at AllWays Lounge, I live right across the street. So we went over there, I was intrigued by it but it was kind of like, ‘I can take it or leave it. It was an interesting experience.’ But I shot some pictures, just for fun, and I got introduced to a couple dancers, one of whom gave me a business card, and then I ended up emailing some pictures to them. They got back in touch with me and said, ‘We really like your pictures, do you want to come to our shows? We’ll put your name on the guest list.’ So I started going more, and the more I went I started kind of getting it, the humor and the whole sort of satirical side of it all. There’s this one group here called, Slow Burn Burlesque, and the more I started sitting in on their shows, the more I just got caught up in it. I remember one night there was a show at the Hi Ho Lounge, which is right by me, and I got this buddy here who’s from Russia, but you’d find him really interesting. He’s not a musician but he’s an incredible photographer. He’s a Russian but he lives here, shoots with Leicas, shoots film, doesn’t do anything digital, really a purist. I got an email from this burlesque group telling me they were doing a show at the Hi Ho Lounge and that same day Roman, this Russian guy, called me up and says, ‘What’re you doing tonight?’ ‘I’m thinking about going to the Hi Ho, why?’ He says, ‘I’m going to the Hi Ho because there’s this Russian punk band playing there with a burlesque group.’ I’m like, ‘Okay, we gotta go,’ you know. So we were there and there was a band called Debauche, have you ever heard of them?
No, I haven’t.
They live here—the leader of the band is Ukranian, the other three guys, I think, I don’t know if they’re from here but they live here. And they refer to their band as, ‘Russian Mafia punk.’ And they play all these traditional Russian folk songs but they play them really loud and really fast, kind of punkish. So we went to this show and I photographed it. They were giving away free shots of vodka. Me and Roman got really wrecked. Before the night was over we were hooting and hollering, getting caught up in it. It was funny, after that, one of these owners of Slow Burn Burlesque group, there’s two people who basically run the group, contacted me and said, ‘We really love your photography, if you wanted to be our official photographer, we can’t pay you much but we’ll pay you.’ So for four or five months, I’d go and shoot and they’d give me 50 bucks or whatever, give me a CD, so I got into that for a while. It was a blast, just crazy. He’s like their emcee, his name is like Ben Wisdom—and that’s his real name, interestingly, not a stage name. Ben and I had talked about doing something like a print exhibition of my burlesque work and doing it in conjunction with a performance. I don’t know if we’ll get around to it, but we’ve talked about it.
The couple who manages the Lost Love Lounge in the Marigny live across the street from me. One day he said, “I have art openings in the bar and kind of rotate (shows) through and he said, ‘Why don’t you do a photography show?’The show is a mixture of three cities. I’ve been playing around with this idea for a long time, trying to figure out how to tie them together. I have tons of work from Detroit, and all the work I’ve amassed here in the last couple years, and I’ve made a whole bunch of trips to Paris. Between 1999 and 2009 I made 10 trips to Paris. That’s all I did was wander the streets and shoot. The longest trip I made I stayed for a month, not long before I moved here. I just came up with this idea since all three cities—you know, Detroit was a French colony at one time, and I thought, ‘Paris is the mother and these two French colonies, see how they’ve evolved in different directions and what commonalities they have, if any. That’s what the show is, a combination of those three cities.’
And you’ve got all your work from Turkey you’re pulling together.
Yeah, I don’t know what I’ll do with all of that. I’ve got loads of it. The stuff I had to do, all the pictures of the (Pinettes Brass Band), in Italy all the stuff I did at the Umbria Jazz Festival, I did all that work for Gary Edwards of Sound of New Orleans Records, then just my personal work. I still have to sift through a lot more stuff. That’s all I’ve been doing the last couple weeks. There’s a load of stuff. I guess in terms of stuff I’ve always done—I went through a period in Detroit when I kind of messed around with fashion photography and doing some different things, but essentially my work has always been kind of documentary. Coming from that newspaper world. I had a corporate career—I worked for Detroit Edison, the public utility in Detroit, for 22 years I was a staff photographer there. Essentially, when they hired me, I’d been in the newspapers business, which I really liked, but the hours were terrible, the money wasn’t that good, it was hard on me, hard on my family at the time, I was married and I had young kids, and Edison basically recruited me because of my journalism background. They said, ‘We want someone who can shoot like a journalist, but shoot the corporate stuff so we can get our work in print.’ So I worked for them for 22 years, it was a great job, and when I was 57, they offered me a buyout. That was like four and a half years ago. The company was changing, I was, like a lot of guys my age, I’d been there a while, I was getting lots of vacation time, I was at the top of the payscale, and they wanted to get rid of me. They were offering buyouts left and right, just like a lot of big corporations, so they offered me one, it was a good deal, and I took it. So I got my pension, the health insurance … And for a while I was teaching photography at a community college up there. Interesting ride.
Have you played Jazz Fest yet?
No, that’d be a dream.
Is that what you aspire to?
I don’t know that I aspire to it—I don’t know if I aspire to anything, as far as some big pie-in-the-sky thing. The way I’m looking at the music thing now is not like there’s some gig that would be the be-all end-all, it’s more like what I want to accomplish as a musician in terms of my skill, my ability to play. That’s more important to me—that’s one of the things I was telling this guy in the rock band (that he recently quit), these guys are all half my age, I don’t think they have any illusions of grandeur but they have a different attitude about the music than I do, you know? And I remember telling the bandleader a while back, ‘Look, man, I ain’t out to be no rock star. I want to have some fun, I want to enjoy the music, and if I can make a little money, that’s cool. But the most important thing to me is the music.’ So that’s kind of where I am now. I just want to play. I just want to be a good player, to be able to hang with these guys. If I could play Jazz Fest, that’d be awesome. Right before I went to Europe, it was funny, I played at the Candlelight on Wednesday night—I could play there forever and be happy—I was talking to Benny before I left—and he’s been paying me for those gigs, because this Stackman guy I was telling you about, he ended up going out of town a while ago, he still does some pretty good stuff. He told me, ‘I’m going to San Antonio for about a month, I’ve got some gigs there, it’s good money. So when he’s gone, Benny pays me.
You take his spot?
Yeah. The last few weeks I’ve been the main sax player on Wednesday night. So I get paid—it ain’t a ton of money, but I still get paid. But anyway, I told Benny, before I went to Europe, ‘I’ll be out of town a while so I won’t be here for a few weeks,’ and he’s like, ‘That’s okay, man. You going to be here tomorrow?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll be in town tomorrow, why?’ He said, ‘Come on down to Snug Harbor.’ They had just put out a new CD and that was the Thursday night they were doing a CD release party at Snug Harbor. Benny says, ‘I’ll put your name on the guest list.’ So I went down there—I didn’t expect to play. For something like that he’s got his main guys he calls in for that. But I took my horn with me. I figured it ain’t no big thing to have it with me. They did a set—it was standing room only in the place. And the first set I was up on the balcony. I came downstairs during their break and Benny was there and he says, ‘There’s a chair right up at the front of the stage, go on and sit up there.’ I said, ‘Okay,’ so I went and sat up front. They got up, the first song, this guy named Reggie, trombone player, he was like right in front of me, and he says, ‘Where’s your horn, man?’ I said, ‘It’s in the corner.’ ‘Well, what’s it doing there? Go get it, get on up here, man.’ So they called me on stage and I played the second set with them at Snug Harbor. It was awesome.
Was that kind of a high water mark in terms of your—
For me it was, yeah. That’s a nice venue.
And a prestige night for them, too.
Yeah, it made me feel part of the whole thing for a night like that. Like I said, it’s not about the money or any of that stuff. They make you feel like you’re part of the family. That’s what’s so cool. So, yeah, I don’t know about aspirations.
Joseph’s online portfolio can be found at www.crachiola.com; he also posts to flickr and writes a blog called Improvisations.
Joe, you need to be careful, the first thing you know, all the musicians in the country will be coming down here to hang out!
We may have to put a sign at the New Orleans City Limits: Full, no more musicians!
Great interview, Derek. I love Joe’s stories and photos.
Les bons temps continue a rouller. Joe, you should mention our book somewhere. Some kind of watermark, non?