David Redfern, one of the most influential and revered music photographers of his generation, died in October at age 78, three years into a brave struggle with pancreatic cancer. This charismatic Englishman, a regular visitor to New Orleans, had been photographing Jazz Fest since the early ’70s.
Redfern is responsible for some of the most memorable images of Miles Davis, Bill Evans, Buddy Rich, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Frank Sinatra, Art Blakey, the Beatles, John Lee Hooker and Louis Armstrong, to name a few. Redfern was always aware of the potential history he was recording. Right up until his last images, he continued to strive to capture something much more expansive than a high quality record of a performance.
Redfern was a devotee of New Orleans culture and had no hesitation in describing the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival as the best music festival in the world. Many of his finest images—of Chuck Berry, B.B. King, James Brown, “Big” Joe Turner, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, Buddy Guy and Lightnin’ Hopkins—were taken at Jazz Fest.
A creature of habit, he could be found each year in Room 211 of Le Richilieu Hotel, and for a number of years seriously considered following Herman Leonard’s lead by buying an apartment near the Quarter. He shopped at Maison Blanche and at Whole Foods. He took breakfast at Le Croissant d’Or or the Camellia Grill; arranged lunch meetings at Commanders Palace; rated the Caesar salad at Louisiana Pizza Kitchen as the best in town; enjoyed catfish at Barrows (before the storm) and Deanie’s or R&O’s after; relished the burgers and atmosphere at Port of Call; regularly enjoyed a Susan Spicer dinner; and would mark the end of Jazz Fest for another year with a farewell dinner for friends and colleagues at Maximo’s.
His choice of ale was Abita Amber and he was always willing for a wander down Frenchmen Street to catch a gig or two. He may also be the only person in the world to have turned down an offer to join Fats Domino at his home for home-cooked red beans and rice, a cuisine which, along with crawfish boils, were about the only aspects of New Orleans culture not quite to his taste.
A pioneer of color music photography, Redfern took full advantage of high-quality television and film lighting to capture iconic images, such as Louis Armstrong during an Herb Alpert television program in New York in 1967 and Jimi Hendrix’s final performance at London’s Royal Albert Hall. The Armstrong image was chosen by the U.S. Postal Service in 1996 as one of 10 postage stamps in its American Jazz Series. Three of the 10 stamps in that series—Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins and Thelonious Monk—were by Redfern.
Redfern believed “that photographers are born, not made.” He was born in England’s Peak District on June 7, 1936. His interest in jazz and photography dates back to his national service in Germany, where he bought his first 35mm camera and became hooked on jazz at a Hamburg concert featuring Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie and Oscar Peterson, among others. Back home in the U.K., he picked up a job working in the Kodak factory and found himself living in London at the time jazz was taking off. By 1959, he was photographing music festivals and, in the early ’60s, began photographing early British television programs such as “Ready Steady Go” and “Thank Your Lucky Stars.” The next stage of his career was the international festival circuit, and the rest, as they say, is history.
David Redfern was, in every way, quintessentially English. He was a tall, affable and engaging gentleman with a moral compass set firmly to social justice. Everyone liked David, and David would either return the sentiment or be very diplomatic. His urbane and outgoing manner oozed a natural charisma. He was outrageously attractive to women of all ages. He only had to be left alone for a few seconds for one or other women to make a move on him. He would behave as if he hadn’t noticed, or default to harmless flirting—or just beam that huge smile of his, perhaps followed by a deep guffaw of a laugh, that told you all was good in the world of David Redfern.
The proud recipient of the Milt Hinton Award for Excellence in Jazz Photography in 2007 and the U.K. Parliamentary Jazz Award for Services to Jazz earlier this year, Redfern has lived his life to the fullest. “This vast scheme of life we have,” he wrote in 2005, “ain’t no rehearsal… As we ride off into the sunset, I’ll quote from the song from the great Louis Armstrong. It’s a wonderful world.”
He is survived by his wife, two ex-wives, three children, five grandchildren and hundreds of thousands of memorable images.