Icons show their true colours for UK 'Dean of jazz'

Terry Cryer has photographed some of the great jazz and blues legends and now his iconic pictures are going on show in a new exhibition. Chris Bond talks to him.

FOR a man described by Mojo magazine as "the Dean of UK jazz and blues photographers", Terry Cryer's career has been anything but conventional.

Although his camera lens has captured some of the most famous entertainers of all time, including Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole and Sammy Davis Jnr, photography was about the least likely career option for the youngster growing up in an austere post-war Britain.

Having left school at the age of 14, Cryer joined the Army three years later.

"I told them I was a photographer and strangely enough they believed me, which was nonsense, of course, because I'd barely used a camera. But they sent met to Egypt as a photographer and I became a corporal at 18, making me the youngest in the British Army," he says.

After spending three years in the Army, he returned to Leeds, which, in the mid-50s was far different from today's glittering metropolis. "It was a grotty little place back then, everything was lit by gas lamps. In those days you supped up by half past 10, had your fish and chips

and went home."

One of the few sanctuaries was a jazz club called Studio 20 where musicians would hang out after their concerts. It was here that Cryer met some of the biggest names in jazz and blues, including the late Humphrey Lyttelton, Ronnie Scott, Jimmy Rushing and Tubby Hayes.

"All these great jazz legends would come in, so naturally I took some pictures. I always gave them a print and after a while their agents started calling me up to come and cover their concerts."

Having built up his portfolio, he moved down to London in 1957 as a freelance photographer, although he didn't find the streets lined with gold. The likes of Melody Maker and Jazz News paid just 10 shillings for one of his black and white photos, forcing him to supplement his meagre income in whatever way he could.

"I had a nice little job for a while photographing young ladies who would come in from the strip clubs and take off their clothes for 10 – which was all I could afford," he says, laughing.

It was during this period that he photographed the likes of Muddy Waters, Count Basie and Eartha Kitt, who are among 30 stunning jazz and blues portraits featured in Cryer's Love You All Madly exhibition which goes on display at the Smokestack in Leeds, this month.

"They were lovely people, every single one of them, apart from Miles Davis, he was a bit touchy. But he'd been punched up by a copper in New York and had his vocal chords broken.

"You have to remember that half of the people I photographed weren't allowed to vote and had to use the tradesmen's entrance, so even though they were famous, they were still disenfranchised."

He has fond memories of those heady days.

"It didn't pay you much money, but it was a great life. People like Louis Armstrong used to call me by my first name which was a step up for a street urchin like me," he says.

"I was allowed backstage because all the musicians trusted me. They knew if they were smoking dope or something, I wouldn't photograph them."

In 1960, Cryer joined the Associated Press as a floor sweeper, but was given the chance to photograph the Duke of Edinburgh at a Royal Society event. "There were no photographers available and they knew I took pictures, so they said, 'go on Terry, go and do some photographs' so off I went."

Within six months he was head of the grand-sounding special projects team, although he says this meant going undercover, or being sent to places nobody else wanted to go to.

"I went to Moscow to cover a big trade fair. They wouldn't allow any Americans in, but I got in on a false visa as a lorry driver."

Once inside the Soviet Union, his job was to get as many photographs of Nikita Khrushchev as he could.

"He was a lovely bloke and he loved having his picture taken," Cryer says of the former Kremlin boss.

For the next few years his beat took him to South America, Africa and back behind the Iron Curtain, before he quit Fleet Street and returned to Yorkshire, working first for the Harrogate Herald, before joining a photographic agency in Leeds.

Now 74 and retired, Cryer believes his portraits have stood the test of time.

"I'm always looking for the perfect print. It's an emotional thing and even though I've probably only done four perfect prints in my whole life, I'm proud of what I've done."

However, he fears that black and white photography is fast becoming a dying trade.

"The craft is being lost because it's all gone digital. Black and white photography is organic, you have to work to create a good picture, but everything is done for you with a digital camera so you don't really learn anything."

He doesn't envy those doing his job today.

"It's all about celebrities now, whereas the people I photographed weren't regarded as celebrities.

"In my day you could talk to them, but you can't get near stars today because they're surrounded by bouncers and security men."

Despite such misgivings he looks back on his career, stretching back six decades, with great affection.

"It was magical. If you were a photographer, your aim was to get to Fleet Street and I got there quite by accident.

"It was a great job and I always regarded it as a privilege."

Love You All Madly – An exhibition of jazz and blues portraits by Terry Cryer is on display at Smokestack, 159a Lower Briggate, in Leeds, from July 13 to October 25.