Frank Driggs, 1930-2011

Frank Driggs, a tireless jazz researcher and historian who collected photographs familiar to millions, died this week at the age of 81. In the 1950s as a producer for Columbia Records, Driggs oversaw the organizing and reissuing of historically important recordings by Billie Holiday, Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington and Gene Krupa. In 1991, he won a Grammy for Robert Johnson, The Complete Recordings, the recorded work of the seminal blues singer and guitarist. He began documenting the history of jazz at the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University when Marshall Stearns was its director.

As a collector, Driggs gathered more than 100,000 photographs that he cataloged primarily in his head. He was able to retrieve them when academic institutions, publishers and authors needed them. Photographs from his archive fill the book Black Beauty, White Heat, which he co-authored with Harris Lewine. Several of the photos in my biography of Paul Desmond are from the Driggs collection. His friend and associate Donna Ranieri told The Associated Press that Driggs was found dead of natural causes in his apartment in Manhattan on Tuesday.

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  1. Ashley Kahn says

    I feel very fortunate that I was able to reconnect with Frank and spend one more morning with him last week, when he still seemed healthy and active, if somewhat tired after moving himself, his furniture and his numerous file cabinets into a new apartment on West 9th Street. He was his usual stoic self at first. Once we began speaking about jazz, photo books, and his own photography, he came to life with the same, enduring enthusiasm I had noticed the first time we met more than fifteen years ago, and when I later interviewed him about the 3-LP Ellington Era box he had produced in the early ’60s (the same reissue that inspired Steely Dan to record a version of “East St. Louis Toodle-oo”). About his fabled photo collection, Frank spoke with the ambivalence of one still very proud and connected to his life work, yet who wanted to find the right place for, and the right circumstances with which to allow, it to move on.

    I went through folders of photo prints he had set aside for me. Now and then I held up images of early jazz groups that were unidentified. From half a room away, he snapped off names without hesitation: “Fate Marable”, “The Crackerjacks, 2nd edition of the band”, “Eddie Randle – 1939″ (yes, it was his St. Louis folder). There’d be a story of a trip he took that led him to a certain photograph, or trove of photos, and then detailed information that could be as encyclopedic as it was informal and personal: a bandleader who drowned as a result of an epileptic fit. A pianist whose talent was as prodigious as his reputation as a swindler.

    Much has been said and written of Frank’s collection and its singular significance. I agree that his photographs are almost immeasurable in their collective worth, yet I think what also made them so valuable was the man who understood each and every one of them so well, and the stories that each carried. We now have his photographs – or rather, some individual or institution soon will – but I think it would take another of Frank’s deep knowledge and perseverance to help these images attain their full value.

    Thanks Frank, for the personal dedication and collector’s impulse that informed and served us all.

      • Светлана says

        A couple of months ago I attended a party at the State Center of Modern Art in Moscow dedicated to the presentation of the Russian translation of the book by Ashley Kahn, Kind of Blue. The translation was made by Professor Mikhail Sapozhnikov, Doctor of Physico-Mathematical Sciences and evidently a great connoisseur of jazz. It’s a very good translation, as far as I can judge, and a beautifully published book with an ad hoc licensed (by Sony) CD of the Miles Davis famous album attached to it. The presentation was accompanied by videos of the Miles Davis sextet performance and live music by Miles Davis performed by the trio Krugly Band under Alexei Kruglov (tenor sax). It was a very nice experience.

  2. says

    More bad news… I believe I’ve been seeing the Frank Driggs credit in liner notes for a half century now–wondering who he was and what he looked like. Though he had a good long run, for all practical purposes, as the “Dean” of the Photo-History of Jazz, and his Black/White book is indeed a masterwork, I hope there’s no need to be concerned about preserving his 100,000 photographs, and that they are already in the hands of some worthy library or college for the world’s enjoyment and suitable use.

  3. says

    Ironically, The New York Times used a photo from the Frank Driggs Collection to accompany an obituary for Wilma Lee Cooper on September 18. While he won a Grammy for Robert Johnson:The Complete Collection, he produced the historically more important and influential King of the Delta Blues Singers. And we should not forget he also wrote (with Chuck Haddix) the wonderful Kansas City Jazz.

  4. Larry Kart says

    I know — speak no ill of the recently deceased. But while I never had dealings with Driggs myself, and I wrote appreciatively about “Black Beauty, White Heat,” according to accounts from former colleagues (or should I say “victims”?) of Driggs whom I implicitly trust, he amassed much of his collection in a (to say the least) dubious manner — “borrowing” material (photos, rare recordings, etc.) from its rightful owners (family members, people who had legitimately purchased it, etc.) and then never returning it once it was “his.” He also reportedly pillaged the photo files of Columbia Records when he worked there. One wonders whether any of his collection will be returned to the people and places that Driggs lifted (or if you prefer, “liberated”) it from. I would assume, though, that he covered his tracks very carefully or just left no tracks behind at all. That he could be “generous” in providing access to what he had accumulated, that his archive is a treasure trove, and that he knew a great deal about what was in it (as Ashley Kahn says) , does not IMO excuse Driggs’ behavior.

  5. says

    I am one of the former colleagues Larry Kart refers to. Frank and I got along quite well until i became one of the many victims of his obsession—let’s call it what it was. In 1961, when I returned from a Riverside recording trip to Chicago, I had with me an acetate disc of a wonderful band led by trumpeter Leroi Nabors. Leroi trusted me with that one-of-a-kind disc when I borrowed it to play for John Hammond, hoping to spark some interest in him at Columbia. That did not come to pass, because the disc vanished from John’s office. It was later seen at Frank’s house as a part of his much praised collection. So was the photo of Johnny Dunn marching in an Amsterdam parade—it disappeared from my department after a visit from Frank. The Dunn photo belonged to my friend, Elmer Snowden and I remember well how difficult it was to explain both thefts to the rightful owners.

    Frank also performed mass “vanishings” when he had access to the Schomburg collection (in connection with the “Harlem On My Mind” exhibit, and he depleted the old Columbia Records picture files. He also had a go at Time-Life’s files and—most deplorably—treasured scrapbooks belonging to aging musicians and/or their families.

    I was not being funny when I began labeling my own photos with “This photo is not to be left within reach of Frank Driggs.” Most people in the business understood what I was saying.

    Finally, when I used one of the Columbia publicity photos in my Bessie Smith biography, I received a letter from an attorney representing Frank, demanding a $1,000 fee—of course I refused. A year or so later, Frank called and apologized, adding that “we should be on the same side.”

    • Dan Morgenstern says

      Now that Larry and Chris have broken the ice, let me agree that, alas, Frank was no saint. However, he was responsible for preserving a lot of stuff that might otherwise have been lost or trashed–both from deceased musicians, and from record companies and publications, not always the best keepers of what should be kept. (When it comes to Columbia’s photo files, Frank may well have been the inspiration for Bob Altshuler, who followed in his footsteps.) Frank borrowed stuff from us that never came back, but we returned the favor, admittedly, and especially in his late decades Frank became a sharer.

      (By the way, though mentioned in obit and repeated innocently by Doug, Frank never had any official role with the Institute of Jazz Studies when it was not yet at Rutgers but in the good hands of its founder, Marshall Stearns, who donated IJS to Rutgers but died before it came here—just to clarify).

      I appraised Frank’s collection some years ago, which provided a chance to fully appreciate its depth, though I would have had to spend weeks to take it all in. Aside from its huge (and deep) jazz core, there was much related to other branches of music, and a wonderful clutch of vintage Hollywood studio portraits, oversize and in mint condition. Aside from photos, there were ephemera, posters, lobby cards, and sheet and manuscript music. Frank combed flea markets and had a good eye. He also had a good ear, and his love for the music was genuine. We were contemporaries, and I knew him from way back—&3151;incidentally, he was yet another Hammond “discovery.” John got him into Columbia because he was in the “400”–from a society background, albeit an impoverished one.

      Frank left a legacy that one hopes will remain, in its jazz essentials, intact and in responsible hands. We were contemporaries, and I knew him from way back. His last days could not have been happy ones–he’d been in poor health for some time, and the death of his companion, Joan Peyser, in whose spacious home he had found a perfect place for his collection, confronted him with having to quickly find another stash, no simple matter in today’s New York City. After that blow, I feared he wasn’t long for this world.

      • Doug Ramsey says

        Mr. Morgenstern has been director of the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University since 1976.