Q&A with legendary jazz photographer Mark Sheldon 

His new show has over 50 portraits of local musicians

click to enlarge Mark Sheldon - LORA OLIVE
  • Mark Sheldon
  • Lora Olive

Mark Sheldon's signature black and white photography has been featured in a multitude of publications including: Downbeat, Jazz Times and Living Blues. He sifted through his library of work and compiled images of past and present Indiana jazz legends into one Hoosier-centric show. The Naptown Scene examines Indiana's jazz legacy — how the greats like Wes Montgomery helped beget the up-and-coming jazz legends. I sat down with Sheldon after the show's opening to learn about his passion for jazz photography.

NUVO: How did you get started with photography?

Mark Sheldon: As a kid I used to look through my grandparents' photographs around the house. I always felt there was some importance to documenting things.

My grandfather was always taking pictures of something. While he didn't point me towards photography and we never had a conversation about it, it was his photographs of family and travel that showed me the importance of legacy and documenting events, however mundane.

click to enlarge Jared Thompson ©2015 Mark Sheldon - MARK SHELDON
  • Jared Thompson ©2015 Mark Sheldon
  • Mark Sheldon

NUVO: Why jazz photography?

Sheldon: I used to shoot mostly rock; I grew up on The Beatles and Motown. I would sneak my camera in places to get pictures. I had to hide it and bring it in with me. Back in the day I photographed Led Zeppelin, Santana and Queen. It wasn't until my late '20s that I knew what jazz was. I heard it the first time and kind of hated it. What was going on here? I don't get any of this. But ultimately, it just grew on me. You have to listen to the music and how they play it and what they do to really get a feel for it.

I would go to festivals and clubs and things like that and it morphed into that. I still photograph different things, but I'm more entrenched in jazz.

NUVO: Who was the first jazz musician you photographed?

Sheldon: Miles Davis was one of the firsts. That was a sneak-my-camera-in show, and the photographs really reflect how poor I was at the time. He was one of my favorite guys I listened to when I listened to jazz. Being able to see him was like someone who loved rock in the '60s getting to see the Rolling Stones. He was a god.

I brought the camera to the show, but had no real access. I tried to walk up to the barricade where all of the photographers were and to get some shots. I got a few decent shots but nothing to be excited about. At the time I thought that was really cool. I just moved on from there.

NUVO: How would you describe the Indianapolis jazz scene? Has it changed since you started shooting?

click to enlarge Mingo Jones ©2015 Mark Sheldon - MARK SHELDON
  • Mingo Jones ©2015 Mark Sheldon
  • Mark Sheldon

Sheldon: Indianapolis has always had a good jazz scene. There are some music authors and historians who say there is an "Indianapolis sound" to jazz, just like there is a New York, Chicago, New Orleans, or LA sound. Some of the more legendary musicians who have come from here and influenced generations of players are: Wes Montgomery, J.J. Johnson, and Freddie Hubbard. If you're playing trombone, guitar or trumpet — I don't care if you're 15 or 16 or 40 — these Indianapolis musicians will have influenced you. I think it's pretty odd for a city this size to have a handful of musicians who have influenced thousands of performers. Every musician who comes to Indy wants to whip out some Wes Montgomery tune at the Jazz Kitchen.

NUVO: What can we expect to see at The Naptown Scene

Sheldon: This is my first exhibit of solely Indiana musicians. It's about 55 photographs and all feature Indianapolis or Indiana musicians. Around the walls there are two-foot square prints that I did of all the younger musicians. They're tightly shot, their eyes are in focus, but everything else is blurry. You're drawn to their eyes immediately because they're big and in your face. In the middle of The Naptown Scene there is a display of 36 of the older, more legendary musicians. There's a bio of the musician next to each image that David Williams wrote. Having the little vignettes next to each photograph was really a plus. A lot of times at an exhibit you look at an image and you might not know who it is and you fly by it. Last night there were people who read all 36 bios and it was really cool.

You get a history lesson with the older musicians and a nice peek into the younger musicians. Typically my exhibit may not include those same guys — but when you're talking about a legacy you've got to look at what's coming and not just what's passed.

On display: The Naptown Scene

When: Aug. 7-31

Where: The Landmarks Center, Rupp Family Gallery

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