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.”
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.
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.