Preserving Ted Williams’ Photographs

If you follow jazz even tangentially, you have seen photographs by Ted Williams. Most of us have also seen his shots of major figures in news events of the second half of the twentieth century. This picture of Martin Luther King is one of them.

When Williams died in 2009 at the age of 84, he left tens of thousands of his prints and negatives in shoeboxes and notebooks. Most of them have never been published. They are not cataloged. The father and son team of Lou and Max Modica are spearheading an effort to preserve, organize and display Williams’ work. This paragraph is from the website they have created as part of the fundraising needed to see that the photographs survive and become available to the public.

Williams (pictured) was one of the first African-American photographers to attend Chicago’s Institute of Design, where he heard lectures on photography by such luminaries as Ansel Adams and Dorothea Lange. He began taking pictures of musicians in the late 1940’s and his body of work consists of more than 90,000 images. His first major magazine article was a 21-page spread for Downbeat magazine when he covered the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival. He went on to regularly contribute images for many music and national publications and took part in the exhibit “Images of Music: Classical through Rock” at New York’s Soho Triad Fine Arts Gallery.

In his early days, Williams photographed many of the musicians who lived in Chicago or appeared there. Lou Modica has provided Rifftides with a photograph of one of the visiting artists and Ted Williams’ account of what happened the night he took it.


The town buzzed for weeks in anticipation of Bird’s scheduled six days at The Bee Hive. The Hive was essentially a bar — a narrow room with a bar running the length of one wall. Bird was to be working with a local rhythm section plus, this time, another local musician that doubled on trumpet and tenor — I imagine to cover any absence on Bird’s part. I am not usually a First Nighter. But in Parker’s case I make an exception, the first night might be his only night!

Even with an added cover and minimum, the place was packed…leaning room only. Set time comes — no surprise — no Bird. Ira Sullivan played valiantly but the patrons paid for The Yardbird and they could hear Ira anytime — no cover, no minimum!

Rumors that Bird is in the house relieve some of the tension. Next set — Bird is on the stand, horn in hand. Within minutes he is nodding out, leaning against the piano! Poor Ira is going nuts — soloing on the trumpet — soloing on the tenor — the grumbling gets louder — the club owner is on the phone to the musicians union — Bird sleeps.

Had it been anyone but Charlie Parker, the place would have been vacant — customers clutching their refunds in hand and long gone. But nobody wanted money back — we came to hear Bird and if he played one note we would be there to hear it!

Between sets he begins to show signs of life — the bartender made him something tall and milky and Charlie was sucking it up through two long red straws. On the stand he calls loudly to the piano man “The blues in A!” What followed was the most unexpected but absolutely brilliant exhibition of blowing that I have heard from anyone! The whole set was his!! As Duke might have said ‘beyond category.’

When he finished the set, Bird called out to the union rep — “Do you still want my card, m___f___?”

(©Ted Williams, used with permission)

The campaign headed by the Modicas includes an opportunity for donors to acquire copies of Williams’ photographs in return for contributions. If you are interested in the preservation of a valuable trove of pictorial history, visit this website and see if you think the effort is worthwhile. The site has more of the photos, a video that includes Williams discussing his work and information about the fundraising organizers.

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  1. Jonathan says

    Just donate the collection to the Library of Congress for digital archiving with request of copies for display.

    • Lou Modica says

      Thank you for the suggestion. but at this time the family does not want to donate the collection.