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From Miles Davis to Charles McPherson: photographer Michael Oletta pays it forward with Jazz In The Moment book

Profits will go to the Monterey Jazz Festival jazz education fund

Michael Oletta and a few of the jazz moments he has captured over the years.
Michael Oletta and a few of the jazz moments he has captured over the years.

Anyone who has attended local jazz concerts over the last 40 years is familiar with the stealthy visage of longtime professional photographer Michael Oletta, who got his start in concert photography back when he was in high school. “As I was growing up,” recalls Oletta, “I was the kid with the camera. I still have the little Instamatic I had back then.”

Growing up happened in the Central Valley, and his introduction into his future avocation came from a less than stellar resource. “I wanted to start shooting rock concerts, so I actually ordered a fake identification card from the back of a wrestling magazine or something back in the 1970s. Here I am, like, 17 years old, and I see this ad for an ID where you sent in your picture and what you wanted on it. I chose Rolling Stone Magazine, and it looked totally legit, laminated with a fingerprint. I started showing up at these concerts. Nobody had pro cameras back then, so I’d show up with two 35-millimeter cameras around my neck and my fake ID. I’d walk right up to the front row, and I’m two feet from Elton John at the Oakland Arena, clicking away.”

Oletta moved to San Diego for college and got caught up in the jazz scene while developing a career as a commercial photographer (he became the still photographer for the KPBS Club Date show). That led to more legitimate press passes, and the opportunity to travel up the Bay Area to shoot the much-lauded Monterey Jazz Festival, a distinction that continues to this day.

Now he has a new book in the works, titled Jazz In The Moment. “I wanted to do something that concentrated on the images themselves, along the lines of a coffee table book, everything in black-and-white, probably about 150 pages, 10 by 12 inches. The photos will be culled from my 40-year career of shooting jazz events, including images from the North Sea Jazz Festival, Monterey, New York, and San Diego.” Famous faces include “Miles Davis, for sure. Also Dizzy Gillespie and Chick Corea.” And from San Diego, “Charles McPherson, James Moody, Mike Wofford, and Mundell Lowe. I am still narrowing it down.”

Jazz in The Moment will be self-published. “That’s the reality of things today. Unless it’s an Oprah Winfrey cookbook or something, nobody is interested. This way, I stay in control. I ended up with a printing company in Canada that’s amazing.”

Oletta isn’t planning on getting rich off the project, which he hopes will be ready (in an initial run of three or four hundred copies) by late August or early September. “Those will be numbered and signed. The early run will be a hardcover with a slipcover on it. It’s a real book. And all profits from it will go to the Monterey Jazz Festival jazz education fund, as a way of paying it forward. I started a Go Fund Me, and everything collected from that helped fund the book. This is basically a labor of love. I’ll be charging $40 or $45 and it’s going to be an absolute donation.”

The photos will be presented alphabetically, “just to mix it up. Once again, it’s about the images. I’ve sifted through thousands and thousands of negatives and digital files to come up with the final product.”

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Michael Oletta and a few of the jazz moments he has captured over the years.
Michael Oletta and a few of the jazz moments he has captured over the years.

Anyone who has attended local jazz concerts over the last 40 years is familiar with the stealthy visage of longtime professional photographer Michael Oletta, who got his start in concert photography back when he was in high school. “As I was growing up,” recalls Oletta, “I was the kid with the camera. I still have the little Instamatic I had back then.”

Growing up happened in the Central Valley, and his introduction into his future avocation came from a less than stellar resource. “I wanted to start shooting rock concerts, so I actually ordered a fake identification card from the back of a wrestling magazine or something back in the 1970s. Here I am, like, 17 years old, and I see this ad for an ID where you sent in your picture and what you wanted on it. I chose Rolling Stone Magazine, and it looked totally legit, laminated with a fingerprint. I started showing up at these concerts. Nobody had pro cameras back then, so I’d show up with two 35-millimeter cameras around my neck and my fake ID. I’d walk right up to the front row, and I’m two feet from Elton John at the Oakland Arena, clicking away.”

Oletta moved to San Diego for college and got caught up in the jazz scene while developing a career as a commercial photographer (he became the still photographer for the KPBS Club Date show). That led to more legitimate press passes, and the opportunity to travel up the Bay Area to shoot the much-lauded Monterey Jazz Festival, a distinction that continues to this day.

Now he has a new book in the works, titled Jazz In The Moment. “I wanted to do something that concentrated on the images themselves, along the lines of a coffee table book, everything in black-and-white, probably about 150 pages, 10 by 12 inches. The photos will be culled from my 40-year career of shooting jazz events, including images from the North Sea Jazz Festival, Monterey, New York, and San Diego.” Famous faces include “Miles Davis, for sure. Also Dizzy Gillespie and Chick Corea.” And from San Diego, “Charles McPherson, James Moody, Mike Wofford, and Mundell Lowe. I am still narrowing it down.”

Jazz in The Moment will be self-published. “That’s the reality of things today. Unless it’s an Oprah Winfrey cookbook or something, nobody is interested. This way, I stay in control. I ended up with a printing company in Canada that’s amazing.”

Oletta isn’t planning on getting rich off the project, which he hopes will be ready (in an initial run of three or four hundred copies) by late August or early September. “Those will be numbered and signed. The early run will be a hardcover with a slipcover on it. It’s a real book. And all profits from it will go to the Monterey Jazz Festival jazz education fund, as a way of paying it forward. I started a Go Fund Me, and everything collected from that helped fund the book. This is basically a labor of love. I’ll be charging $40 or $45 and it’s going to be an absolute donation.”

The photos will be presented alphabetically, “just to mix it up. Once again, it’s about the images. I’ve sifted through thousands and thousands of negatives and digital files to come up with the final product.”

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