Photography lecture illuminates unique American music era -- and all that jazz

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Benjamin Cawthra poses in Fullerton, Calif. for a publicity photo.

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The cover of Walla Walla University alumni Benjamin Cawthra's book "Blue Notes in Black and White" is shown.

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Author and WWU alum Ben Cawthra is shown in a publicity shot in June 2011 at Fullerton, Calif., for his book, "Blue Notes in Black and White."

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COLLEGE PLACE -- Jazz photography and the people, places and times that inspired it has been a passion for historian and Walla Walla University alum Benjamin Cawthra.

Now an associate director for Oral and Public History at California State University, Fullerton, Cawthra will give a lecture Tuesday in Walla Walla on the subject.

The author of "Blue Notes in Black and White: Photography, Race, and the Jazz Image" will speak at 7 p.m. in Room 117 of WWU's Administration Building.

Cawthra will examine the legacy of photographers Gjon Mili, Herman Leonard, William Gottleib and others who documented the emergence of Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, John Coltrane and other jazz greats.

The photographs serve as landmarks in American history, acting as both a reflection and a vital part of African American culture in a time of immense upheaval, conflict, and celebration.

In his book, published by University of Chicago Press, Cawthra writes about magazine, record album and fine art photography of jazz subjects from the Swing era of the 1930s to the era of black nationalism in the 1960s.

"You sense an author consumed and excited by his subject," New York Times book reviewer Ben Ratliff wrote. "Dr. Cawthra analyzes pictures of individual musicians and elucidates their context, searching for messages and narratives about jazz as a whole."

Jazz author John Gennari calls Cawthra's book "a model for multisensory music criticism: while reading it, I often felt I was hearing the music more deeply."

Cawthra spent nearly a decade as a public historian at the Missouri History Museum in St. Louis.

While there he curated several exhibitions including "Miles: A Miles Davis Retrospective," the first large-scale museum exhibition on the jazz musician.

He contributed an essay and several interviews with associates of Davis to an accompanying volume edited by Gerald Early, "Miles Davis and American Culture."

Cawthra also remains active in the museum world. He recently curated the exhibition "Herb Snitzer: Photographs from the Last Years of Metronome" for the Sheldon Art Galleries in St. Louis and wrote the essay for the accompanying catalogue.

He also is project director of "New Birth of Freedom: Civil War to Civil Rights in California," an exhibition at the Orange Country Nikkei and Agricultural Heritage Museum in 2011-12 in commemoration of the Civil War Sesquicentennial.

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