Big Jay McNeely

Los-Angeles born Bob Willoughby was most known for his intimate jazz photographs taken between 1948 and 1954. One of the most astonishing photographs from Willoughby’s jazz series is of Big Jay McNeely in 1951, and came out of a late-night concern at the Olympic Auditorium in LA. Willoughby heard about the gig on the radio and by the time he arrived, well past midnight, the audience were on their feet screaming as the saxophonist put on the show of his life.

“To this day I have never seen or heard anything to match it,” Willoughby reminisced, “Big Jay stood in the middle of what normally would be a fight ring, playing his heart out, and the crowd was exploding around him. I was so caught up in the excitement that I just climbed right up on the stage without thinking. Big Jay was strutting up and down playing chord after riff after riff on his sax, hooking his way through 45 minutes of pulsating, explosive, rhythm. He knelt, he sat, he laid flat on his back, playing into the faces of orgasmic girls. He appeared away on some kind of space flight, perspiring until his clothes were soaked. He tore off his wet jacket without even missing a beat. And the near-hysterical crowd just kept screaming, ‘Go! Go! Go!’’’

Willoughby deftly recorded the electrifying atmosphere that night as the saxophonist lay with his back on the stage, the audience hanging on every note.

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