“Trumpet Man (Chalis O’Neal)”
Diallo Javonne French’s black and white short film “May This Be Love” opens with a delicately muted view of the 18th and Vine Street sign and delicate strains of piano jazz. Introduced by award-winning actress Sanaa Lathan and accompanied by poetry by 18th and Vine Poet Laureate Glenn North, this gentle film tells the story of two lovers. Written, produced and directed by French in 2006, “May This Be Love” aired on the BET program “Lens on Talent” in 2009 and won first place at the Urban Mediamakers Film Festival. In addition to BET, the film screened at the San Francisco Film Festival and the Spaghetti Junction Urban Film Festival.
Before and since “May This Be Love,” French has been quietly building a portfolio of photography and film work. He often can be found at night in The Blue Room and a few other venues, navigating his way through the crowd and angling close to the stage to capture the perfect moment of light, sound and energy.
French, a Southwest High School graduate and Clark Atlanta University alumni who majored in mass communication, started out wanting to be a musician. “My heroes were Quincy Jones, Burt Bacharach, Babyface, and Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis,” he said. “I eventually realized I wasn’t as musically gifted as I wanted to be. But I always loved movies and was fascinated with the filmmaking process.”
Since “May This Be Love,” French has produced three other films. The first, “Pay Respects” (2015), a short film selection of the Kansas City Film Festival in 2016, explored African American music. “Kansas City Dreamin’” (2016) is a self-documentary exploring French’s black and white photography of Kansas City’s jazz aesthetic and includes interviews with Bobby Watson, Janelle Monae, Marva Whitney and Tech N9ne. In 2019, Diallo returned to romantic films with “A Song For You,” a love story about the inspiration of a soul singer.
Despite his success in filmmaking, the foundation of French’s artistic practice is his photography. Starting out at The Blue Room in 2002, Diallo’s 20 years of photographic experience result in work that photographically encapsulates those fleeting moments in jazz.
“The lighting on the stage is perfect for what I’m trying to create,” French said. “I like to get musicians in their element. The pictures are not posed. I call them honest musical moments.”
Created with a modest Canon T3, French’s “honest musical moments” strike a chord with viewers. Iconic saxophonist, educator and performer Bobby Watson once said to Diallo, “You really captured something. You’re not just taking pictures; you’re documenting.”
French cites Gordon Parks, Herman Leonard and Herb Ritts as key influences. This is quite evident in his portfolio: In addition to the romanticism of black and white photography under natural light, French has mastered the art of capturing the fleeting magical moments that it produces. The light dancing across the face of the subject in French’s undated photograph of singer Julia Haile invokes Herman Leonard’s iconic image of hard bop tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon, blowing smoke as he rests between sets.
While his last solo exhibit was in 2013, French’s work can currently be seen in the “Testimony” exhibition at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. “It’s a huge honor to have a photograph in the Nelson-Atkins,” he said. “Growing up in Kansas City, I had many field trips as a child to the Nelson. I never thought my work would ever be there. I hope that children of all races and backgrounds get the opportunity to see this exhibit. I want them to dream big.”
Photos by Diallo Javonne French