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Nancy Miller Elliott 1940 - 1998by Chip Deffaa
Copyright © 1999 Chip Deffaa
Nancy Miller Elliott, the internationally respected jazz portrait photographer whose camera captured everyone from Billie Holiday in the 1950s to Wynton Marsalis in the 1990s, lost a long battle to ovarian cancer on January 9, 1998. She was 57. She was the best jazz portrait photographer I knew. Many of her framed photos hang in my home. She was also a significant photographer of New York's homeless. Her homeless photos were widely exhibited. All of the time she spent volunteering in a soup kitchen, or befriending homeless individuals on her own time, said a lot about who she was, too.
You can find Elliott's unusual photos in many different books by various authors and editors, including Jazz Giants, Talking Jazz, What Do They Want?, Homeless in America, Wishing on the Moon, Keeping Covenant with the Poor, The WKCR Jazz Book, and The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz. Praised in Artforum International for their "lucidity and strength," Elliott's photos also appeared in many newspapers and magazines, and on albums. They turned up everywhere from documentaries to the walls of comedian Bill Cosby's TV home. Elliott's photos can also be found on the walls of the world's oldest jazz club, the Village Vanguard, and are in the permanent photo collections of both Lincoln Center and the Rutgers Institute of Jazz Studies in Newark, New Jersey, to which she bequeathed the bulk of her collection. (They will be available, for a fee, to any jazz authors, filmmakers, etc., who might need them.)
You'll find her photography represented in most of the eight books I've done, including Swing Legacy, Voices of the Jazz Age, Traditionalists and Revivalists in Jazz, In the Mainstream, and Jazz Veterans. My own favorite of those eight books, Jazz Veterans (Cypress House), was actually built around Elliott's distinctive photos. The purpose of the book was really to gather in one place some of the best of Elliott's photos - we included more than a hundred of her shots - to which my words would be added. The book was conceived at her Manhattan apartment on one night in 1990. We stayed up going through her marvelous collection, making the first choices as to which photos we wanted in the book, until four in the morning! As friends and collaborators, we were on the same wave length. Like me, Elliott kept no set hours; she believed (as I do) in staying up as late as desired, in sleeping as late as desired.
In 1992, we chose to bring two more gifted collaborators into our project, John and Andreas Johnsen of Denmark. But Elliott's photos were the starting point for Jazz Veterans. Incidentally, if you wish to purchase the book, phone the publishers at 707/964-9520, say you're a JJA member, and ask for a 10% professional discount.
Elliott said she maintained a positive attitude throughout her cancer ordeal by listening to tapes of the great love of her life, trumpeter/bandleader Buck Clayton (whose autobiography she co-authored). Her good friend Phoebe Jacobs, Vice President of the Louis Armstrong Foundation, is now working to institute a music-therapy program at Sloan Kettering Hospital in Elliott's memory.
Elliott was born in 1940 in that section of Manhattan known as Hell's Kitchen and raised in the Bronx. (Clayton's composition "That Dangerous Lady from the Bronx" was one of many he dedicated to her.) She dropped out of high school at age 16, preferring to spend her time in Manhattan jazz clubs. Rutgers Institute of Jazz Studies Director Dan Morgenstern, who's known Elliott since the late 1950s, says even her earliest jazz photos were impressive. Although also talented at painting - noted painter Ben Shahn once offered Elliott a full year's art school tuition - music and photography emerged as her primary interests.
By age 19, Elliott was enough of a figure around Greenwich Village to be profiled in the March 1959 issue of Pageant magazine, in which she was quoted saying, "Jazz musicians I love because they say what they mean. They have souls." The magazine commented, "In Nancy's studiously careless life, jazz music is a permanent love and jazz musicians are her heroes."
An exhibit of Elliott's photos from Jazz Veterans will be mounted at New York's 92nd Street Y in conjunction with their "Jazz in July" festival.
Following cremation, most of Elliott's ashes were scattered at New York's 52nd Street ("Swing Street") and Park Avenue. I might add that some of her remains - including particles as fine as dust, others more like grains of sands or even little pebbles - also inadvertently got spilled in my home. At first I was really bothered that I'd dropped the container, spilling some of her ashes. But then I kind of liked the idea that Elliott, in a sense, might permanently be a part of my home.