The Golden Age of Jazz
by William P. Gottlieb
Frequently, when I think of a particular jazz musicianCharlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Billie Holiday or Dizzy Gillespie, for examplethe image that pops into my head is one I've seen in a William Gottlieb photograph.
Browsing through "The Golden Age of Jazz," most jazz fans will be surprised how many images they've seen before, and perhaps stunned that all of them were taken by the same photographer.
Gottlieb's portraits of Monk, Parker, Holiday, Gillespie and others are iconographic. They've been used on album covers, coffee mugs, postcards and calendars. When you think about Charlie Parker, the sound that comes to mind is Bird's own high-flying improvisations. But the picture that goes along with it is a Gottlieb.
There's not a dull shot in "The Golden Age of Jazz." Each portrait is an amazing character study. We see Duke Ellington in all his sartorial splendor, seated before a dressing room mirror. The detail is fascinating. You can make out an array of suits hung up behind him, a container of baby powder on the counter in front of him, a piano with a fresh sheet of staff paper waiting by his side.
In a portrait of Django Reinhardt (the image that flashes into my brain every time I hear or think about Django) you can see the guitarist's burnt, disfigured fingers, and you come away even more baffled about how he was able to overcome his injuries to play with such dexterity and grace.
And to think we may not have had any of these pictures at all. Despite his mastery of photography, Gottlieb actually had his start as a writer, first as a columnist for The Washington Post and later with Downbeat. When his editors nixed the cost of sending a photographer along with him to the clubs, Gottlieb checked out a camera himself, and thank goodness for that. The photographs in "The Golden Age of Jazz" trace a revolutionary period in the music. From pioneers such as Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet, through the swing era (exemplified with portraits of Duke Ellington, the skinny Frank Sinatra and others) to bebop.
Like the music of those masters, Gottlieb's photos keep rewarding. They're endlessly fascinating and absolutely beautiful.