“Home of Eubie Blake, Billie Holliday, Cab Calloway, and Gary Bartz, Baltimore continues to foster a thriving and talented diverse jazz community that plays jazz each and every day to stay alive and thrive,” says photographer Efrain Ribeiro. “Documenting the evolution of this community throughout the last two years has made me realize how much common intensity photography has with improvised music.”
Ribeiro’s international background makes him the perfect advocate for jazz in the Baltimore-Washington region. The photographer was born in Fukuoka, Japan, to Peruvian parents while his father worked for the United Nations/World Health Organization in Korea, during the Korean War. Ribiero spent his youth in El Salvador and Argentina, as well as Silver Spring, MD.
Ribeiro started out his career in the arts in Baltimore, attending Johns Hopkins in the early 1970s to study creative writing and filmmaking, where his mentors were Richard Macksey, Alicia Borinsky, Sam Weber, and John Barth. After JHU, he attended Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Public Communications, and soon after he co-produced, photographed, and edited a documentary about the boxer Carmen Basilio.
As a youth, Ribeiro had a strong interest in jazz and improvised music from the late ’60s. As a teenager, he began attending concerts and photographing jazz musicians at the Left Bank Jazz Society (Sun Ra, Charles Mingus) and DC Space (Julius Hemphill, Chicago Art Ensemble) in the ’70s. He grew up investigating the music of his place and time with jazz critic Bill Shoemaker.
Despite these formative and creative experiences, Ribeiro’s career took a practical U-turn and he ended up working in market research for global conglomerates like TNS, Ipsos, and Kantar for more than 45 years. Ribeiro says he continued taking photographs around the world, but because of the intensity of his profession, he could not keep up with the necessary post-production work that photography requires. Still, it remained a passion and a hobby.
In 2016, Ribeiro retired from market research and rededicated himself full-time to documenting local jazz musicians and venues, providing the photographs to musicians for their personal and professional use. “After a long and fulfilling career once in retirement, lots of people dedicate their time to some sort of meaningful ‘charity’ to give back to their communities,” he explains. “I knew that going back and immersing myself in photography was what I would do—being able to marry this with the jazz community in Baltimore has been a work in progress over the last five years.”
Ribeiro has shot thousands of rolls of film since 1973, so he divides his time between digitizing his archive of images with learning new techniques and subjects like infrared, landscape, and biographical photography.
In his ongoing pursuit of jazz documentation, Ribeiro says he is driven by several motives. He describes improvised African-American jazz music as “one of the true original North American art forms.” He wants the highly innovative practice to have more detailed documentation of performances in actual venues. Ribeiro is also driven by the omissions that currently exist within the recorded history of jazz. “What would the photographs tell and look like if they were meticulously documenting Charlie Parker’s or Ornette Coleman’s rise?” he asks. “The reality is that there is so little [visual evidence] of John Coltrane’s life and development.”
Historically, the Baltimore-Washington region has boasted a wealth of jazz talent and performance spaces, and Ribeiro is cognizant that the jazz program at Baltimore’s Peabody Institute is growing under the direction of Sean Jones. For Ribeiro, it’s even more vital now to document the musicians and organizations that are behind the expansion of this regional jazz community, as well as to provide visual resources to promote the interest and appreciation of this art form. Documenting the musicians in the actual settings where the music is made and practiced offers a layer of context and visibility for the individuals and communities who make this art form possible. Since 2020, Ribeiro has focused on capturing the impact of COVID-19 on jazz performances and communities that are struggling to survive and thrive.
“Packed with talented jazz musicians, Baltimore’s jazz heritage continues each and every day including during COVID by improvising spaces where these artists can continue their craft and earn their living,” says Ribeiro. “Documenting this difficult evolution through photography in parks and semi-empty clubs made me experience the drive and invigorating qualities of this unique North American art-form during these difficult times.”
In addition to this photo series that we present at BmoreArt, which focuses on jazz performances and artists in the Baltimore/DC region performing during the pandemic, often outside and in tiny venues, Ribeiro has added a few new directions to his practice. Since March 2020, Ribeiro began to spend much of his time in Puerto Rico and Peru, where he has family. He is now actively documenting the music scene in Puerto Rico and continuing to create iconic images for musicians and venues to use to introduce their work to new audiences.