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Brian O'Connor - Jazz Photographer


Some of the images that jazz photographer Brian O’Connor has taken are remarkable. Perhaps what makes them more remarkable is that Brian is self-taught but with an experienced eye for a great picture taken at just the right time.

Born in 1942 in Beckenham, Kent, Brian left school at sixteen to work in the Freight department of a London Docks shipping company. ‘I wish I had thought to take photographs of the Docks backBrian O'Connor then,’ says Brian. ‘You never think at the time that places are going to change and what an opportunity there was to record the Docks at that time.’

Brian bought his first camera, a second-hand 35mm Ilford Sportsman in his early twenties. ‘It cost me £6.00,’ he remembers. ‘That was about a week’s wages. It had three shutter speeds, no metering and focusing was by guesswork. My main interest to start with was in landscape photography and after a while I paid £12.00 for a Weston Master 1V exposure meter to accompany the Sportsman. I was soon able to learn how to gauge exposures in many varying conditions.’

‘By 1958 we had moved to Sydenham,’ Brian continues. ‘There was not much jazz around locally and my main exposure to music at home was listening to the Light programme on the radio. I particularly liked easy-listening Latin music – Edmundo Ross, Geoff Love, music like that. By this time I had left the Freight office and had tried a number of different jobs, including starting to train as a Solicitor’s Clerk, but by 1970, I had enough of office jobs, and because of my interest in photography, I decided to apply to work for Dixons, selling equipment in their photographic department.’

‘It was about this time that I started to go along to meetings of the Frank Sinatra Appreciation Society. About fifty to seventy people used to get together at a hotel in London to listen to talks and play music – not just by Sinatra, but others too. After a while, the meetings moved to Ronnie Scott’s old and subsequently new club on Sunday afternoons.’’

It was at the Appreciation Society that Brian met Stan Britt. Stan was working at the Daily Express and had a particular interest in jazz. ‘I think Stan is the most knowledgeable person about jazz that I have ever met,’ says Brian. ‘He had a great record collection and I used to go round to his house and listen. It was there that I first heard Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd and I was hooked.’

Brian recalls that Stan Britt was very keen to write jazz article for the Melody Maker, and one day, knowing of Brian’s interest in photography, Stan suggested that Brian go along to take photographs of the musicians he was interviewing. The proposal opened a door to opportunities that Brian would not otherwise have experienced. Eventually, Stan would leave the Daily Express Dexter Gordonto set himself up as a freelance jazz writer, but he continued to take Brian with him to take the pictures.

Dexter Gordon
Photograph © Brian O'Connor

‘Stan is a real character,’ says Brian. ‘He has this big beard and is quite substantially different in his attire, even when we turned up at places like the Dorchester hotel. I remember the time we went to see Andre Previn. Andre Previn’s face was a picture when we walked in and he saw Stan. Stan had this old tape recorder and he said: ‘Would you mind plugging this in for me Andre?’ After a couple of hours, however, everyone was totally relaxed. Stan had a way of being able to communicate with people, and his knowledge of the subject helped. He was talking to Andre Previn about recordings he had made, and Andre was saying: ‘Did I really record with those guys?’

Brian remembers the first gig he ever photographed. ‘It was a concert by the group Blood Sweat and Tears at Hammersmith Odeon. I was taking pictures purely by guesswork from a position in the audience. Those were the days when I used to have a darkroom, either the bathroom blacked-out or the room I now use as an office. That was the time of using fast black and white film and then uprating it. I have to say that I do not have any nostalgic feeling for the ‘good old days’ when I was inhaling chemical fumes for hours on end! I now have an Epson Stylus Photo R2880 printer that produces superb images up to A3 size plus. When I converted to digital photography, I again learned as I went along, I’m just sorry that it was not available thirty years ago.’

In Stan Britt’s company, Brian also went regularly to gigs at Ronnie Scott’s Club. ‘We must have gone there nearly every week from 1970 to 2000, that’s thirty years. They kept seats for us near the front where I could take photographs from a good position – the staff on the door, Monty, Ricci, Moses, Jimmy Parsons, Wendy, Katharine - made our visits there great. I learned that it is important to get permission to take pictures, be polite, and be invisible. These days I always try to get to know a venue first to make sure I take the right equipment and find out just where and what I will be allowed to do; the best places to take the pictures from. I like to keep my equipment to a minimum and I am still reluctant to use zoom lenses. I am now using a Pentax K5 camera with mainly old Pentax M lenses. I just have a couple of modern autofocus lenses, but on the whole I prefer manual focus and exposure.’

Brian’s ‘day job’ in photographic shops continued, being promoted from salesman to manager, moving to another shop, another manager’s position. From different branches of Dixons to Tecno Cameras in Euston Road, then to City Camera Exchange …. ‘There were times when I had to getCount Basie away early,’ says Brian. ‘Stan would have an interview, or there would be a gig. We interviewed Joe Pass, a really nice, meek and modest man. Then there was Buddy Rich – what a hoot! and a great raconteur. Johnny Mathis insisted on having his hair done properly by his staff and I had to take pictures of his ‘good side’. We interviewed Count Basie early in the morning. He sat at breakfast with a drink and cigar and although he could remember everything about the music, he had difficulty remembering the names of musicians.’

Count Basie
Photograph © Brian O'Connor


‘I remember the time when there were going to be gigs over 2 days at the Alexandra Palace. I said the only thing that will stop me going is if the place burns down ……’

On the whole, Brian’s pictures have not been of ‘Traditional Jazz’ musicians, but he recalls taking photographs of Kenny Ball, Chris Barber and Acker Bilk at various times. ‘They were doing a ‘Barber, Ball and Bilk’ concert on one occasion,’ says Brian. ‘I contacted Kenny Ball and asked if it would be alright for me to take photographs and he said: ‘Really? You must be mad!’ There was another time when the three of them were supposed to be at a reception but Chris Barber could not go. We ended up with a large cardboard cut-out of him and the other two with their arms around the cut-out!’

Brian’s memory of jazz venues is equally intriguing. ‘Bass player Peter Ind used to have one of the best ‘piano rooms’ when he had the Bass Clef and then the Tenor Clef. In the early ‘90s you would go up two flights of stairs in this old warehouse. Entry was about £5 or £6 and audience numbers varied. There was one occasion when Howard Alden was playing and there were only the 5 of us of us in the audience. Peter and Howard played two one-hour sets just for the two of us!’

Jamie CullumEventually, Stan gave up his writing and in 2000, Brian gained his first photographic qualification when he was awarded the LRPS (Licentiate of the Royal Photographic Society). At 58, he was still working in the retail trade. ‘It was almost impossible to earn enough money from jazz photography,’ he says, ‘but the time came when the shop where I was working in Crawley started to diversify and gradually brought in other general electrical goods. In 2002, I was sixty and I decided to retire, but not stop my photography.’

Jamie Cullum
Photograph © Brian O'Connor

Brian continues to go to gigs and to take stunning photographs. In the past year, Brian has been in contact with Jazz Services who will be taking Brian’s portfolio of photographs for their archive. One of his pictures has appeared on the cover of a recent copy of Jazz UK.

The quality of Brian O’Connor’s photographs is inspiring: ‘I try to make sure the eyes of the subject are in focus, irrespective of whatever else is captured sharply,’ he says. ‘Then I try to capture the moment when a musician displays an individual ‘quirk’ that adds something to the shot – it pays to know the performer. Then I take as many shots as possible. Never shirk the responsibility of pressing the button.’

Click here to see the evidence of this philosophy in Brian’s photographs on his website.


In 2016, Brian published a book of his photographs. Here is our review:

Photographer Brian O'Connor has previously staged exhibitions of his work, you might have seen them - the latest was in Cumbria at the Keswick Jazz Festival and his pictures are retained by the National Jazz Archive. We are very fortunate that Brian regularly shares his images inBrian O'Connor Images of Jazz book What's New in our monthly feature 'Two Ears Three Eyes'.

At last, Brian has produced a book bringing together many of his most striking pictures, so if you are looking for a suitable present for someone or just want to treat yourself - now is your chance. Brian recently told me he had read that David Hockney has a book out of his paintings at £1,750 including a coffee table, and it weighs 35kg (not the coffee table alone).  Brian is not planning on supplying coffee tables and says: 'Just think, £1,730 can be saved by purchasing my book!' Brian's book is A4 hardback, 132 pages printed in colour throughout (ISBN 978-1-5272-0057-9) and priced at £25 plus £4.95 post and packing (UK), but the price for orders placed before 24th December 2016 is £20 plus p&p. I haven't attempted to count the number of photographs in the book but I estimate somewhere between 400 and 500.

The book captures striking and atmospheric black and white and colour photos of musicians taken at more than 60 venues in London and across the UK between 1971 and 2016. It includes photos of UK and Peter Indvisiting American and European musicians both onstage and informally. Several musicians are featured at different stages of their careers, from exuberant youth to successful maturity.

Brian introduces the book with affectionate notes about his regular visits to Ronnie Scott’s club and other venues, and shares insights into the life of the jazz photographer, capturing the moment. There is a detailedindex, notes of where and when the photographs were taken and a page about photographic technique and equipment for the camera enthusiast.

Brian O’Connor’s working life mainly consisted of working in and sometimes running a series of camera shops in and around London. His interest in photography began at an early age, and his first ‘upmarket’ camera was a used Ilford Sportsman costing £6. His musical interests began with Frank Sinatra and ‘That Old Black Magic’ in the early fifties, and progressed with the rhythms and tunes of Latin American music, in particular Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd’s LP, Jazz Samba.


Peter Ind
Photograph © Brian O'Connor


Brian joined the Sinatra Music Society and met Stan Britt, a founder member of the Society. This led on to the Great American Songbook. His two hobbies blended at the beginning of the seventies. Stan Britt had become a freelance journalist and began interviewing many of the jazz greats, and Brian joined him with his camera. Through Stan he also became a regular at Ronnie Scott’s club - for about 30 years he was there nearly every week, listening and photographing. (Click here for our Profile of Brian).

Bass player Peter Ind has written the Foreword to the book and says: "The art of conveying life, dynamism and movement is hardly ever better expressed than it is in still photography of jazz musicians playing. This new book of jazz photography fully illustrates this and Liane Carrollit is the work of an unassuming man who has a great eye – Brian O Connor.  We should all thank him for his dedicated work ensuring that there is a record forever of some fabulous jazz moments.”


Liane Carroll
Photograph © Brian O'Connor


Pianist and singer Liane Carroll writes in the book on behalf of the National Jazz Archive, which helped with its publication and says: “The astounding photographs bring to life the musicians who contributed so much to the wonderful art form we Brian O'Connorknow as jazz. The remarkable images that appear in Brian O’Connor’s new collection add to that rich heritage and tradition.”

The first gig Brian photographed was Blood, Sweat and Tears at the Hammersmith Odeon in 1971, and as we can see from 'Two Ears, Three Eyes' below, he continues to visit pubs, clubs and festivals, adding to his collection of photos of more than 2000 musicians and capturing for us the images of today's jazz musicians.


Brian O'Connor

Brian O’Connor’s Images of Jazz’ by Riverside Publishing Solutions can be obtained from Brian at: Brian O’Connor, 48 Sarel Way, Horley, Surrey RH6 8EW. Tel: 01293 774171. Email: info@imagesofjazz.com. The book is priced at £25 plus £4.95 post and packing (UK), but as we say, the price for orders placed before 24th December 2016 is £20 plus p&p.

© Sandy Brown Jazz

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