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PHOTOGRAPHY REVIEW

Framing the faces that music made famous

LEXINGTON -- Before recording, the human experience of music was as much visual as auditory. To listen was to see: The only way to hear music was to be in the presence of its performance. Or at least it was until Thomas Edison came along.

Yet there's a reason ``American Idol" is broadcast on television rather than radio. Even in the age of recording, music has retained a strongly visual component. Much of Toscanini's mystique sprang from that fierce, noble face -- and much of Eminem's from the fierce ignobility of his.

``Gershwin to Gillespie: Portraits in American Music," which runs at the National Heritage Museum through Sept. 17, reminds us of the aural importance of appearance. It comprises 49 images that run the gamut of American music of the last century, from John Philip Sousa to John Lee Hooker . Their joint presence brings to mind the ``Simpsons" episode in which Lisa is mortified her school band has to play its umpteenth version of ``The Stars and Stripes Forever. " Imagine her tearing into ``Boogie Chillun. "

Classical, jazz, blues, rock, Tin Pan Alley, all are represented in ``Gershwin to Gillespie" (George and Dizzy, but you probably figured that out ). Most of the faces here are famous -- Miles Davis's , Frank Sinatra's , Leonard Bernstein's , Bob Dylan's , B.B. King's -- but not all the images are.

Who knew that Paul Robeson -- strategically positioned, of course -- posed nude for Nickolas Muray in 1925? Robeson doesn't look as naked as a bathrobe-wearing Brian Wilson in Annie Leibovitz's 2000 portrait. She shows him blank-faced and vulnerable as he stands beneath a sky filled with impossibly black clouds. Neither ``Good Vibrations" nor ``The Warmth of the Sun" comes to mind as a suitable title.

In Carl Van Vechten's 1932 portrait of Aaron Copland , the famously gentle composer looks vaguely gangsterish. He could be the long- lost younger cousin of Hesh Rabkin on ``The Sopranos. " Even more startling, albeit inadvertently, is Philippe Halsman's 1944 shot of the great contralto Marian Anderson . Her processed hair dominates the frame in such a way that she looks like James Brown.

Looking as gorgeous as her voice, Sarah Vaughan is still very much ``Sassy" and not yet ``The Divine One" in Herman Leonard's 1949 portrait. That was a banner year for Leonard and jazz divas. The show includes 1949 portraits he took of Billie Holiday and Lena Horne . Altogether he has nine photographs here. The best of a very good lot is a knockout picture of Sonny Stitt on alto. In front of him a pair of microphones emerge from a plume of cigarette smoke. They look like magic wands -- which, in a way, is what they are.

There are photographic greatest hits to go along with the B sides and alternate takes. Arnold Newman shows Igor Stravinsky looking puny beside a raised piano lid, which resembles a very big B flat. Edward Steichen presents Gershwin at the keyboard, smoking a cigar and penciling in a change to some sheet music. Leonard captures Duke Ellington onstage in a raking, cathedral light. And Art Kane's ``A Great Day in Harlem " assembles more than 50 of the biggest names in jazz, circa 1958, on and in front of a brownstone stoop.

Why no key to identify the musicians, though? The image owes its iconic status even more to Kane's organizational skills than his artistry. The namelessness is like being granted entree to a wondrous family reunion -- and then not getting introduced. Such an oversight is all the odder at a museum dedicated to history. For that matter, all the wall labels give birth and death dates for the photographers, yet fail to do so for the subjects. It's a simple rule: The more we know, the better we see.

Kane has four other pictures in the show, of Jim Morrison , Janis Joplin, Aretha Franklin, and Sonny and Cher. The last two images underscore how aesthetic achievement in one form doesn't necessarily translate into another.

Aretha is Aretha, a singer on a first-name basis with the sublime. Sonny and Cher are, well, Sonny and Cher. Yet Kane's ``Aretha Franklin With Halos in Her Eyes, " which he took for Esquire magazine in 1967, is cartoony and borderline demeaning. To emphasize the singer's gospel roots, Kane used a very slow shutter speed and made circles with his camera, thus achieving the ill-advised lighting effect described in the title.

The previous year, he got even more gimmicky shooting Sonny and Cher for McCall's: Kane donned scuba gear and photographed them underwater in the pool at their Beverly Hills home. It sounds like a joke. It is a joke. But it's a fabulous and perfect joke, right down to Sonny's comb-over staying in place.

Most of the pictures in ``Gershwin to Gillespie" are black and white. This one isn't. The faded cobalt of the chlorinated water lends the image an enchanting artificiality, not unlike Cher's current looks. If the color were any more unearthly, NASA could patent it. All by itself, it illustrates the connection between sight and sound. Listen carefully and you can hear a pair of all-too-familiar voices singing as an oboe plays in the background: ``I got blue, babe."

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.

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