I took to jazz slow­ly, you might say, but now I’m a huge fan.  Clare and I enjoy evenings lis­ten­ing to albums from a mod­est vinyl collection. 

Several years ago, John Maruskin turned me on to “A Great Day in Harlem,” when 57 jazz musi­cians gath­ered for a pho­to­graph sched­uled to appear in a spe­cial issue of Esquire mag­a­zine.  An Internet search turned up lots of images of what has come to be called “the most famous jazz pho­to­graph of all time.”  The pic­ture fea­tures a Who’s Who of jazz musi­cians:  Count Basie, Art Blakey, Roy Eldridge, Dizzy Gillespie, Coleman Hawkins, Gene Krupa, Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk, Gerry Mulligan, Sonny Rollins, Lester Young, and many more.

I got a copy of the book that tells the sto­ry behind the pho­to­graph, The Great Jazz Day, writ­ten by Charles Graham, for­mer edi­tor of Down Beat mag­a­zine.  It’s a treasure.

The idea for the pho­to­graph came from three men.  Harold Hayes, the fea­ture edi­tor at Esquire planned a sto­ry on “The Golden Age of Jazz” for the magazine’s January 1959 issue.  Graphics edi­tor Robert Benton, who lat­er direct­ed Hollywood clas­sics such as “Bonnie and Clyde” and “Kramer vs. Kramer,” bought the idea and went in search of a pho­tog­ra­ph­er.  Benton’s selec­tion of Art Kane, art direc­tor at Seventeen mag­a­zine, was a sur­pris­ing choice.  Although a jazz enthu­si­ast, Kane was not a rec­og­nized pho­tog­ra­ph­er and didn’t even own a pro­fes­sion­al cam­era.  It was Kane who pro­posed assem­bling as many musi­cians as pos­si­ble for a pho­to­graph in Harlem, “where jazz was nurtured.”

Art Kane photograph from Esquire magazine, January 1959
Art Kane pho­to­graph from Esquire mag­a­zine, January 1959 (Click to enlarge)

Esquire sent let­ters to all New York jazz musi­cians they could find address­es for, then left notices in jazz clubs all around town.  The appoint­ed hour was 10 a.m. on August 12, 1958, and the address was 17 West 126th Street, a brown­stone apart­ment between Fifth and Madison avenues.  They had no idea how many, if any, might show up at that ear­ly hour.  (One musi­cian was quot­ed lat­er say­ing, “I had no idea that there were two 10 o’clocks in each day.”)

That morn­ing they slow­ly drift­ed in, and the dif­fi­cult job of try­ing to get all 58 musi­cians orga­nized and set­tled for a pic­ture began.  With every­one milling about catch­ing up with old friends, the job took Kane much of the day.  One of the musi­cians, Willie “The Lion” Smith, wan­dered off and did not appear in the ver­sion that made it into the famous pho­to­graph.  Dizzy Gillespie roamed around the crowd tak­ing pic­tures with his own cam­era.  Count Basie grew tired of stand­ing in the hot sun and sat down on the curb; soon a group of neigh­bor­hood kids joined him there and were includ­ed in the pic­ture.  Several brought their horns and blew a few notes that day.

Numbered guide to the photograph from The Great Jazz Day.
Numbered guide to the pho­to­graph from The Great Jazz Day. (Click to enlarge)

The final selec­tion, tak­en from some 120 expo­sures made by Kane, appeared as a dou­ble-page cen­ter­fold in the mag­a­zine.  It cre­at­ed an imme­di­ate sen­sa­tion in the jazz world and is still well known today.

Jean Bach, a New York radio pro­duc­er, made a doc­u­men­tary fea­ture film about the pho­to­graph.  Her “Great Day in Harlem” was nom­i­nat­ed for an Academy Award in 1995.

Graham’s book came out in 2000.  It includes many of Kane’s pho­tographs tak­en that day in 1958, plus some tak­en by Dizzy Gillespie.  There are biogra­phies of all the musi­cians along with vin­tage pho­tos, as well as essays by author Ralph Ellison, jazz crit­ic Dan Morgenstern and oth­ers, a map of all the “Harlem Jazz Spots,” and much more.  Used copies are wide­ly available.

  • Harry is a Mt. Sterling native who has lived in Clark County since1999. He has a pas­sion for the past and has researched and writ­ten exten­sive­ly about the his­to­ry of this area.