Jazz's most iconic photo is half a century old

by Alan Kurtz

Art Kane: Harlem 1958 © Art Kane Archive - All Rights Reserved

"When I found out there was going to be this big meeting for a picture in Esquire," Dizzy Gillespie recalled, "I said to myself, 'Here's my chance to see all these musicians without going to a funeral.'" The mood was indeed far from funereal on that warm Tuesday morn of August 12, 1958, when nearly five dozen jazz artists overflowed the staircase of a Harlem brownstone for an unprecedented group portrait. The "big meeting" was the brainstorm of rookie photographer Art Kane (1925-1995), and proved surprisingly convivial for creatures of the night unused to a 10 a.m. gig. ("A musician at the shoot," wrote The New Yorker's Whitney Balliett, "said he was astonished to discover that there were two 10 o'clocks in each day.")

Naturally it took a while for the 55 cats and 3 chicks to arrive and exchange greetings, and it's unclear when everyone was finally in place. For that matter, nobody has the vaguest idea how so many rugged individualists wound up exactly where they did, since no one was directed where to stand. Any groupings, such as drummers in proximity or vocalists next to each other, were entirely fortuitous. Even the headcount was subject to last-minute revision, as shown by the gap in the second row (at left) behind singer Maxine Sullivan, which had lately been vacated by Harlem stride pianist Willie "The Lion" Smith. Just in time for the shutter's snap, The Lion tired of standing and, stepping out of frame, seated himself on a nearby stoop, reducing posterity's take from 58 to 57.

The only thing certain is that this assemblage encompassed many of the most luminous stars in the jazz firmament, preserved by the camera at an extraordinary moment in time. Fifty years later, Jazz.com salutes the golden anniversary of what Holly Anderson describes on the official Art Kane web site as "The greatest photograph in the history of jazz." With justifiable pride, she adds: "Not bad for a beginner." (By the way, when visiting Kane's web site, check out the interactive Harlem 1958, which lets you zoom in on the picture and identify each artist by name.)

The subjects caught in Kane's lens spanned the stylistic gamut from New Orleans to Chicago to Swing to Bebop to Modern. The oldest, Harlem stride pianist Luckey Roberts, was 71. The youngest, Sonny Rollins, was 27. Yet the concept of cliques was alien to all. Rollins, for example, viewed his onsite elders Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young as personal heroes, direct inspiration for his own calling as a musician.

Moreover, most of these 57 had performed together in various collegial combinations over the years, and in particular during the preceding eight months in two of the highest-profile jazz showcases ever. First came The Sound of Jazz, nationally telecast live by CBS-TV the previous December, featuring 16 of Kane's 57 varieties:

The Sound of Jazz

• Assisting non-photo subject Billie Holiday in "Fine and Mellow" were Harlem 1958's Vic Dickenson, Roy Eldridge, Coleman Hawkins, Milt Hinton, Gerry Mulligan, Lester Young and Osie Johnson (who also supported Harlem 1958's Thelonious Monk in the telecast).

• For "Wild Man Blues" Dickenson, Hawkins and Hinton were joined by Henry "Red" Allen, Jo Jones, Pee Wee Russell and Rex Stewart.

• To Dickenson, Eldridge, Hawkins and Jones, "I Left My Baby" added Count Basie, Emmett Berry, Jimmy Rushing and Dicky Wells.

An even higher percentage (35%) of the 57 pictured artists appeared, just five weeks before the Harlem photo shoot, at July's 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, which would be immortalized in the documentary film Jazz on a Summer's Day (1960).

     • Oscar Pettiford and Sonny Greer helped non-photo subjects Ben Webster and Billy Strayhorn cross "Chelsea Bridge" when they came to it.

     • Gerry Mulligan sat in with Marian McPartland, whose trio also boasted Milt Hinton, for "C Jam Blues," and led his own quartet featuring Art Farmer in "Catch As Catch Can."

     • Pianist Jimmy Jones embossed place cards for non-photo subject Anita O'Day's chic "Tea for Two."

     • Thelonious Monk followed Sonny Rollins's trio set by retaining the same rhythm section for his own trio staple, "Blue Monk."

     • Horace Silver stretched out with "Seρor Blues."

Among the most appealing aspects of Harlem 1958 is its mix of traditionalists and modernists. By 1958 standards, 60% of the 57 photo subjects were traditionalists.

     • Trombonist Miff Mole waxed "Buddy's Habits" (1926) with Red Nichols & His Five Pennies.

     • Zutty Singleton and Max Kaminsky shared a connection with Louis Armstrong's "West End Blues" (1928). Zutty was its drummer, and trumpeter Kaminsky among its most ecstatic admirers, marveling at Armstrong's leadoff cadenza: "I felt as if I had stared into the sun's eye."

     • Taft Jordan trumpeted on Chick Webb's "If Dreams Come True" (1934).

     • George Wettling drummed on Artie Shaw's "Jungle Drums" (1938).

     • J.C. Heard pinch hit for Max West on Red Norvo's "Congo Blues" (1945).

     • Rudy Powell and Joe Thomas invested in Billie Holiday's "Tain't Nobody's Business" (1949).

     • Buck Clayton, Hilton Jefferson and Dicky Wells teamed with singer Frankie Laine, but only "Until the Real Thing Comes Along" (1955).

Vintage 1950s handbag

• Maxine Sullivan had long since returned from "Massachusetts" (1956) but, judging from the photographic evidence, was still schlepping her luggage. Or is that her purse? Marian McPartland is carting something of similar size, although hers looks more like a portable typewriter. Only Mary Lou Williams, ever the lady, clutches a demure handbag.

• Meanwhile, Henry "Red" Allen, Buster Bailey, Coleman Hawkins and J.C. Higginbotham cooed "Ain't She Sweet" (1957).

     • The versatile Tyree Glenn hopped on "Cotton Tail" (1957).

     • Vic Dickenson, Bud Freeman and Pee Wee Russell contracted "That Old Feeling" (1958).

     • Willie "The Lion" Smith, who'd come to the photo shoot with his pal Luckey Roberts, may have bailed out, but Luckey wasn't "Complainin'" (1958). Luckey was perfectly capable of representing Harlem stride pianists by himself, thank you very much.

     • Chubby Jackson gravitated next to Art Blakey, possibly because among 54 men, they alone sported bow ties (obviously a sign of refinement). Perhaps said accessory was suggested by Chubby's wife, to whom he'd dedicated "A Ballad For Jai" (1958). Gentlemen always benefit from a woman's sartorial advice.

     • Only two days after the Harlem 1958 photo shoot, Lawrence Brown, Roy Eldridge and Jo Jones reconvened to mull over whether or not "You Need to Rock" (1958), an important issue for musicians in those days.

     • Count Basie issued an APB with "The M Squad Theme" (1958), but the dragnet scooped up only a dozen neighborhood kids who sat alongside him on the curb in Harlem 1958.

     • Gene Krupa and Hank Jones spun Gerry Mulligan's "Disc Jockey Jump" (1958).

     • And while his rhythm section burned, Stuff Smith fiddled "How High The Moon" (1965).

Modernists, for their part, may have been outnumbered in Harlem 1958, but they weren't outdone.

     • Sahib Shihab and Thelonious Monk had crisscrossed paths on the very first recording of "Criss Cross" (1951).

     • Gigi Gryce and fellow insomniac Oscar Pettiford were "Not So Sleepy" (1956).

     • Dizzy Gillespie and Mary Lou Williams cast their astrological charts at Newport in "Selections from Zodiac Suite" (1957).

     • Wilbur Ware helped Sonny Rollins arise "Softly As in a Morning Sunrise" (1957).

Charles Mingus detail from Art Kane: Harlem 1958 © Art Kane Archive - All Rights Reserved

• As usual, Charles Mingus demanded "Consider Me" (1958), but again as usual, record companies that year paid no heed. Maybe that's why Mingus looked so surly in contrast to Harlem 1958's other subjects. With an unlit cigarette tilting gangster-style from a corner of his mouth, Mingus seemed posed for a mug shot in the bowels of the 28th Precinct. Of course, it was 10 o'clock in the morning.

• Sonny Rollins, who joined Thelonious Monk in the minority of 2 among 57 who kept their sunglasses on for the photograph, also looked as if he'd rather not be at 17 West 126th Street, but instead back with arranger Ernie Wilkins on "Grand Street" (1958).

     • Speaking of Monk, just five days before the Harlem 1958 photo shoot, Thelonious and Johnny Griffin rendezvoused at the Five Spot Cafι to plot "Misterioso" (1958).

     • It's no accident that Art Farmer and Benny Golson stand shoulder to shoulder on the top step of the Harlem 1958 staircase, for their frequent collaborations (that would soon result in The Jazztet) always led to widespread "Jubilation" (1958).

     • Nor is it surprising that Art Blakey is stationed in front of Benny Golson, who in 2½ months would join Art in Rudy Van Gelder's Hackensack studio for The Jazz Messengers' classic "Moanin'" (1958).

     • Closing out our list is drummer Eddie Locke, who can be heard to advantage on "Big Buddy" (1960), but who serves as a reminder that not everyone pictured in Harlem 1958 was a star. The cast also included little-known supporting characters clarinetist/saxophonist Scoville Brown, a sideman with Louis Armstrong in the 1930s and Lionel Hampton in the '50s, and tenorman Bill Crump, who made just one recording date, with singer Ernestina in 1955.

In the half century since its initial publication in Esquire magazine, Harlem 1958 has become, quite simply, indelible. Jean Bach's Oscar-nominated 1994 documentary, A Great Day In Harlem, enhanced the legend. Unfortunately, it also permanently confused many people who wrongly attach its title to Art Kane's photo.

DVD: The Terminal

Harlem 1958 also figures in a more recent film, Steven Spielberg's The Terminal (2004), starring Tom Hanks as a hapless tourist from Eastern Europe. Upon arrival at JFK International Airport, Viktor Navorski is detained in the terminal by an overzealous bureaucrat from the U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security. Only after an absurd months-long detention does Viktor disclose that his late father was a jazz fan who discovered Harlem 1958 in a Hungarian newspaper in 1958, and spent the next 40 years acquiring autographs by mail of the 57 participants. Before he died, he got all but one: Benny Golson. Viktor has come to New York to complete his father's collection.

Spielberg's screenwriters goofed both in citing 1958, since Harlem 1958 was first published in January 1959, and in selecting Benny Golson from among the seven survivors as the lone holdout who over the course of 45 years steadfastly refused to give up his autograph. Anyone who's ever had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Golson can attest to his good nature, and to accuse him of such rudeness is the sort of stupidity only Hollywood can concoct. (Golson, incidentally, appears as himself near the end of the film, and even gets a chance to play a few bars of "Killer Joe" onscreen. Perhaps this was a quid pro quo for having his character impugned.)

At any rate, Jazz.com dedicates this tribute to the aforementioned survivors—besides Benny Golson, they are (alphabetically) Hank Jones, Eddie Locke, Marian McPartland, Sonny Rollins and Horace Silver—and to the memory of Johnny Griffin, who died at his home in France on July 25, 2008. Long may they wail. And may they forever be spared overzealous bureaucrats.

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