A photo shoot for the ages: The saga of Sleepy John’s retirement send-off

Sleepy John Sandidge (front) stands with musicians and performers
Sleepy John Sandidge (front) stands with some of the musicians and performers he has brought to Santa Cruz audiences.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

A historic group photo of luminary Santa Cruz musicians, brought together to honor the retiring “Sleepy John” Sandidge, almost didn’t happen … until our photographer, Kevin Painchaud, figured out the solution.

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It was nothing more than a coincidence. A day or two after I learned that my friend “Sleepy John” Sandidge was retiring from producing local music shows, I stumbled upon a classic old photo called “A Great Day in Harlem.” It was a black-and-white group portrait, shot in 1958 by photographer Art Kane for Esquire magazine, and it featured many of the greatest jazz musicians alive at that time, including Thelonious Monk, Count Basie, Sonny Rollins, Dizzy Gillespie, Gene Krupa and Charles Mingus. It’s an iconic and much-imitated photo; someone even made a documentary on it.

Hmmm, I thought, I wonder if, as a tribute to Sleepy John, we could congregate a similar collection of talented musicians and performers whom John had presented over the course of his long career.

The result? Well, let’s just say June 29 turned out to be “A Great Day in Santa Cruz.”

If I deserve credit for coming up with the idea, I also deserve blame for almost killing it. And I would have, if not for my pal and photographer colleague Kevin Painchaud. But we’ll get to that.

The idea was pretty straightforward. Let’s get as many musicians from John’s Snazzy Productions stable as possible to be in one place at one time and do a big group portrait, with John front and center. John loved the idea. I suggested a midweek date so it would not conflict with the weekends, when many musicians are much too busy, especially in this post-pandemic summer. John suggested the steps out front of Santa Cruz High School, which approximated the stately vibe of the Harlem brownstone in the original photograph.

So we sent out the invite to musicians who had played one or two or 500 Snazzy shows over the years (it all culminates in a grand festival in August called “Locals Only” at the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds). John even insisted that I and my buddy photographer Shmuel Thaler be in the photo as well, since he presented us in a stage show for readings and photos a couple of times over the years. A few folks declined because of scheduling conflicts, a few others because of COVID concerns. But mostly, with a good four or five weeks’ advance notice, the musicians were eager to gather.

John Sandidge is retiring from his perch at Snazzy Productions
John Sandidge is retiring from his perch at Snazzy Productions after his big “Locals Only” music festival in August at the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Everything was proceeding along just fine. Kevin would be the director of our Santa Cruz High photo shoot. Shmuel, who is still working for the Sentinel, brought his camera along, too. We invited photographer Tarmo Hannula from Good Times and local music historian and photographer Michele Benson as well, as a kind of cross-media goodwill gesture. Why keep it a secret?

Then things got interesting.

The day before the event, my wife, Tina, and I spent the entire day at the Esalen Institute south of Big Sur. If you’ve ever been there, you know that means no cell reception — not that I was even checking.

So it wasn’t until we had gotten close to Carmel on the drive back around 9 p.m. that night that we learned a huge new development in our plans for the “Great Day” photo.

John Sandidge had COVID.

Our first concern was, of course, for John’s health. He felt, if not exactly tip-top, then passably fine. Then, what to do about the photo?

Obviously, John had to quarantine and, just as obviously to me, we couldn’t do this particular photo without John. He was the star of the show, the whole point in doing it in the first place.

I slept (or tried to sleep) on the dilemma and woke up — this is the day of the shoot, remember — convinced we had to cancel the whole thing. I told John. He was crestfallen. I was preparing to send out a mass email calling the whole thing off at the last minute, certainly not a pleasant task. But first I had to call Kevin.

“I say don’t cancel,” he said.

I was dubious. I was not going to expose people to COVID. No way, no how. Kevin said that if we canceled, we’d never get another chance to do this. Sure, but this virus doesn’t care about all our plans.

Kevin’s solution? He would shoot John alone on a spot marked with an X, right in front of the steps an hour beforehand. John would go home. Then, the rest of us would appear, take our group photo, leaving the X blank. And later, Kevin, with the help of the photographer’s best friend, Photoshop, would drop John into the photo, as if he’d been there the whole time.

Of course, we’ve all seen poorly Photoshopped pictures, and I had real concerns that this would look similarly cheesy. Kevin had no such concerns. He knew how to make Photoshop work for him. The last thing I wanted to do was to cancel this shoot. Both Kevin and John were right — if we canceled, the possibilities we could assemble a big group like this again were slim.

Let’s do this thing.

The late afternoon shoot at Santa Cruz High was like a family reunion. So many legendary Santa Cruz artists, and a few younger artists who had also benefited from John’s help, mingled and caught up, the mood buoyant and expectant.

But no John Sandidge. Sleepy John had done his thing and left. But he had one request. He wanted his granddaughter Makenna by his “side.” Makenna showed up — on her 18th birthday no less — with her grandmother Pat. They both stood next to the X.

Art Kane's iconic 1958 photo for New York's jazz giants,
Art Kane’s iconic 1958 photo for New York’s jazz giants, titled “A Great Day in Harlem” was the inspiration for the Santa Cruz shoot.
(Art Kane)

If John had been there, this still would have been a challenging shoot for Kevin. Without him, there were even more plates to spin. About 50 people showed up for the shoot, and Kevin had to establish right away what we were there to do. He had three cameras set up — a handheld, one on a tripod, and one aloft on a drone floating above our heads.

“The biggest thing is keep everybody focused,” he told me. “I was constantly moving around, keeping it interactive. Just a little trick I’ve learned is that you keep talking and keep moving to keep them from getting distracted.”

Most of us didn’t give much of a thought to the light. The late afternoon was crystal clear with blue skies and lots of sun. Kevin, however, was fretting.

“By the time that I shot everybody else, almost an hour had gone by [since I shot John]. So the light had changed a bit,” he said. “The problem was also that the light was so harsh and so bright. Normally, if it’s overcast, it’s very easy to get the right exposure on people. When it’s really bright out, you have heavy contrast. So the stuff that’s bright is really bright, and the stuff in the shade is really dark. The fact that we had so many people meant that I needed to make sure that people in the very front row are sharp, and the people in the very back row are also sharp.”

He also had to manage the drone exactly as he did when he shot John alone: “It was getting a little windy, so it’s kind of drifting a little bit. I did the best I could to get the exact placement where John was, and then when the whole crowd was there.”

After the shoot, Kevin didn’t quite know whether he could insert John into the shot and make it look natural to his standards: “I was holding my breath.”

The result is an instant local classic. As time goes on and the photo becomes a historical record, perhaps we’ll even forget that John Sandidge was not in fact present. But after the photo, when Kevin set up individual band shots, it was apparent Sleepy John was there after all. In spirit, anyway.

John Sandidge "stands" with his Snazzy Productions family of performers
“A Great Day in Santa Cruz”: John Sandidge “stands” with his Snazzy Productions family of performers and musicians.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

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