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A Great Day in Harlem: The Spirit Lives - 50 Years On


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There's a bond, a sort of invisible bond between all musicians who play jazz. There is always that bond, it holds them together.
—Hank Jones
This encore presentation from January 2009 celebrates Jean Bach, director of A Great Day in Harlem. Ms. Bach died on May 27th at her home in Manhattan. She was 94.

It is probably the most celebrated ensemble jazz portrait of all time. Fifty-seven of the greatest jazz musicians gathered together on the steps of a Harlem brownstone early one morning in August 1958—a living family tree of the history of jazz.

And yet, the absentees from photographer Art Kane's enduringly fascinating A Great Day in Harlem are notable. Not present were Louis Armstrong and Miles Davis, Duke Ellington and Bill Evans, John Coltrane, and Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. Charlie Parker had died three years earlier, Art Tatum two years earlier. All those absent giants of jazz, and others too numerous mention, are nonetheless felt somehow to be present—represented by musicians who played with them, and who inspired and were inspired by them. Like with any family reunion, its absent members are with us in spirit.

All About Jazz contacted some of the survivors of that day, some in the picture, others behind the scenes, and collected their memories of the shoot, their insights into the personalities involved, and their reflections on the era, to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of the photograph in Esquire magazine.

There are many iconic photographs of individual jazz musicians, but no other better captures the spirit of the jazz family. And no other better represents the myriad roots and branches of a music which even fifty years ago—when the photograph appeared in the January 1959 edition of Esquire—was difficult to define. The music had already travelled a long way, and in many directions, since its birth.

That a men's magazine should devote a special to jazz was unusual, then as now. The idea was that of Esquire's features editor, Harold Hayes, a jazz enthusiast. Encouraged by graphic designer Robert Benton, he asked Art Kane, then a designer for Seventeen magazine, to brainstorm ideas for a picture.

It was Kane's idea to bring together as many musicians as possible on 126th street in uptown Harlem and photograph them. That Kane was not a photographer, did not own any equipment, and had never before taken a professional photograph, would prove not to be a problem.

That so many musicians turned up for the shoot was due in large part to the efforts of leading jazz writer Nat Hentoff. Hentoff explains: "At the time the editor of Esquire was a very bright guy named Harold Hayes, who knew a lot about jazz and cared about it. So he called me up and said 'Would you do us a favor and call a good number of the musicians, because they know you, and see if you can arrange for them to be there?' I think the time was something like ten or eleven o'clock and I did that, I called, I don't know, maybe thirty or more. And if I was in the clubs I would mention it, and often I got the response: 'Ten o'clock! In the morning?'

"But I think the thing is they liked the concept. The main kick was, and you could see it once you got there, and you could see it in the photograph—they liked being with each other. Since most of them were on the road a lot of the time they rarely had a chance to get together. That's what I used to like about some of the jazz festivals; guys who hadn't seen each other for a long time, getting together and trading stories. So that's how I got involved."

Notices were put up in all the jazz clubs, and at the Musician's Union Local 802 office, announcing that the photo shoot was scheduled for ten o'clock on the morning of August the 12th, 1958. Whether the timing was foolish or plain ambitious, is a moot point, but that as many as fifty-seven musicians did turn up may be down to the fact that sets ran on well into the wee hours. To make the shoot wasn't so much a question of getting up early, but staying up later.

Fifty years on, alluding to the nocturnal lifestyle of jazz musicians, Marian McPartland, one of the fifty-seven who did show, muses: "Maybe they didn't know there was more than one ten o'clock." Now ninety years of age, the remarkable McPartland is still active, presenting her weekly radio show "Piano Jazz," and in 2008 released a new trio album on the Concord label. Originally from Windsor, England, she married Jimmy McPartland during World War II and arrived in New York in 1946.

McParland's first job was playing at the Embers club and she later cemented a residency at the Hickory House, where she would play for ten years. She explains how she came to be in A Great Day In Harlem: "I was playing at the Hickory House and Nat Hentoff came by and told me there was going to be a photo shoot up in Harlem. If I wanted to be in it I had to be there at ten o'clock the following morning. I decided to go."

One of only three women there—the other two being singer Maxine Sullivan and pianist/arranger Mary Lou Williams)—McPartland is front row, and whilst nearly all eyes are on Art Kane's camera, McPartland is locked in conversation with Williams, whom she remembers fondly:

"I couldn't be happier about being next to Mary Lou Williams—we were chatting away and I had (bassist) Oscar Pettiford on the other side, who was one of my favorites. He used to come and sit in at the Hickory House all the time."

Pittsburgh-born Mary Williams was a female jazz pioneer, working as pianist and arranger for Andy Kirk's Clouds of Joy whilst just eighteen years old. Later she arranged for such figures as Benny Goodman, Earl Hines, Dizzy Gillespie and McPartland herself. She was also an influence on Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell. "Oh yes," says McPartland, "they used to go to her house a lot and I guess she taught them a great deal—they went there all the time."

McPartland has her own thoughts as to why some musicians failed to show that day: "Well, of course Miles (Davis) probably thought: 'Oh, to hell with that, I'm not going.' I'm sure he didn't care about that a bit. But I'm surprised that Duke (Ellington) didn't go because a lot of his band members were there, like Sonny Greer and several of the brass players."

As for her husband, McPartland explains: "I tried to get Jimmy to go but I couldn't get him out of bed, which was a shame because he should have been in that wonderful picture. I was very proud to be in it, especially someone coming from England. I was very proud to be in it. There were a lot of people who didn't make it; I can think of a lot of people who should have been there."

One person who wasn't so sure about his place in the picture was drummer Eddie Locke: "What a wonderful day! What a great day!" Eddie Locke is not referring to that day fifty years ago, but to Barack Obama's election victory which coincided with this interview. "He's a decent person; I think he's going to help the whole world."

Back in 1958, Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower was President of the United States and Richard Nixon was vice-president. Less than three years previously, Rosa Parks had refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Only a year before Kane's picture, Eisenhower deployed the 101st Airborne Division to Little Rock, Arkansas to protect nine African-American children from the taunts, spitting and violence of white racists as they exercised their right to attend Little Rock Central High School. A black American president of the United States must have seemed like a distant dream back then, for as happily acknowledges: "Man, I couldn't have imagined it last year!"

Nor, as Locke explains, could he have imagined back in 1958 that he would go on to play with nearly all those assembled in the picture. "I really didn't belong in that picture at that time. At that time I hadn't played with nobody.

"I was there because of Jo Jones—he was my mentor, Papa Jo Jones. I met him when I first came to New York in '54 and I lived with him for two years. He was the one I learnt most from on the drums. I used to carry his drums, I was a gopher. I got coffee for him and all that kind of stuff. Papa Jo Jones was the drummer; he showed all those bebop drummers the way; all the drummers say the same thing about him. He changed the way the drum was played—the swing part.

"And this is how I happened to be there. He used to tell me: 'Meet me here,' and I was so in awe, and so afraid, that I never would ask him why. I was a respectful young man; you don't have kids that would do that now. He told me to meet me at this place; I didn't know where I was going. When I got there I knew who all those people were and I was in awe. I was just in awe. I knew who all those people were, and to get them all there at one time like that—unbelievable! I think everybody was surprised all those people turned up that morning, at that time, that early. Monk and all those guys like that? Even the magazine was surprised. It's an amazing picture."

Locke, now seventy eight, certainly earned the right to be in the picture over the years: "I played with almost everybody in that picture; Roy Eldridge, Coleman Hawkins, Henry 'Red' Allen, I played with all of them. Roy Eldridge was my greatest mentor—he taught me a lot about the drums. He was a drummer when he was young, not a lot of people know that.

"He taught me a lot about playing with people. I learned how to play with people. A lot of young guys today, they can play all that stuff, but they're not playing with people—for them it's all about technique. That's what I liked about Jo Jones, he didn't think that way—he was into swinging! (laughs) They never had another rhythm section like the one in Count Basie's orchestra.

"But at that time, all the people in that picture, man, they were big names in jazz, there were really a lot of innovators in that picture, they started stuff in jazz. You had all those drummers sitting up there like Sonny Greer and Gene Krupa, George Wettling, you know what I'm saying? Art Blakey..."

Locke touches upon one of the most amazing aspects of this photograph. Neither before nor since have so many innovators in jazz, and so many different schools of jazz, been brought together at one time—unless, as Dizzy Gillespie famously quipped, it was for a funeral.

Other great trumpeters were also present. Henry "Red" Allen played with King Oliver in the 1920s, and won the praise of traditionalists and modernists alike (including Miles Davis) for his powerful, original playing. There too was the swinging Roy Eldridge—a major influence on Dizzy Gillespie—who played in Fletcher Henderson's orchestra, and Gene Krupa's band, as well as forging a long association with Coleman Hawkins. In Kane's picture, Eldridge is looking away from the camera, distracted by the mischievous and inimitable Dizzy Gillespie, one of the founding fathers of bop. And there was Art Farmer, who pipped everybody to the Down Beat trumpeter of the year award in 1958.

Of saxophonists there were the kings of the tenor. Hawkins, who really brought the saxophone to the forefront of jazz, and Lester Young who bridged swing and bop in the most lyrical of styles, influencing legions of budding tenorists. There was Benny Golson still active today, and Sonny Rollins who, Coltrane apart, has probably influenced more tenor saxophonists than anyone. There was Gerry Mulligan baritone sax legend and leader of innovative piano-less quartets.

There were great bass players: Chubby Jackson, who played with Woody Herman for many years; Milt Hilton, who played in the bands of Cab Calloway, Count Basie, Louis Armstrong and Benny Goodman; the innovative Oscar Pettiford; and the creative and volatile Charles Mingus

There were great clarinettists like Buster Bailey; Rudy Powell, who played with (pianist) Fats Waller and Pee Wee Russell, who played with Bix Beiderbecke Trombonists included Miff Mole, Ellington men Lawrence Brown and Tyree Glen, the talented but little known Vic Dickenson and the prolific J.C. Higgenbottom. There were great arrangers too, such as Mary Lou Williams, and Ernie Wilkins whose arrangements breathed such life into Count Basie's bands in the 1950s, and whose big band keeps his own legacy alive in 2009 in Copenhagen. And there was the outstanding, swinging, violinist Stuff Smith.

Pianists were represented by the evergreen Hank Jones the one and only Thelonious Monk Count Basie, and one of the great hard bop pioneers, Horace Silver Then there were great stride players like Luckey Roberts and Willie "The Lion" Smith. The charismatic Smith turned up alright for the photo shoot, and appears in many of Kane's alternate shots, but he's not in the shot which would come to grace walls around the world.

Like Count Basie, who had tired of standing and had opted to sit down on the curb, where he was soon joined by a row of kids, Smith sat on the steps of an adjoining brownstone and missed the click of the shutter. His absent form is clearly framed between Luckey Roberts and Maxine Sullivan on the left of the picture.

One person who was there that day on the other side of the camera and who knew Smith very well was Michael Lipskin. Just fifteen years old in 1958, Lipskin later became a record producer at RCA, working with Duke Ellington, recording stride greats and reissuing historic discs, as well as becoming a lawyer and a distinguished stride pianist in his own right. Lipskin talks vividly of Smith, one of the great, influential jazz pianists.

"I had started listening to Fats Waller records when I was three and this quickly led to my thinking that stride piano was absolutely the greatest sound. My parents always read the New Yorker magazine and they had a section listing jazz events, jazz concerts and gigs in bars, that sort of thing, and they mentioned that Willie 'The Lion' Smith was playing at a place called the Central Plaza, which was a big dance hall, and it was also used during the day for live TV rehearsals. They would rehearse there during the day and they'd have two bands at night. They had an upright piano against the middle of one wall, in this huge room. The article said that Willie 'The Lion' Smith, one of the last remaining stride pianists, was playing there.

"I was thirteen so I got my father, who liked jazz, to take me there, and from then on Willie and I became very close. Every time I would go there as a kid I would stand next to the piano and watch him. It was an osmotic education because you can't really learn a lot from watching somebody's hands, especially if they're moving fast, such as in stride style.

"It was more having him as second father, and just hanging out with him as much as possible. As to pedagogy, he wouldn't say 'use this progression' or 'this fingering' or anything like that, and I was too ignorant to ask him how he executed certain passages, or have him slow them down. And he could be intimidating. He'd suddenly say 'OK' and then sit down and start to play, and quite often too fast for me to get anything visually.

"By the photo date I'd spent about two years getting very close to Willie and went to different events with him. One day he said: 'Why don't you come with me? They're going to take my picture.' That's all he said. He didn't say that all these musicians were getting together. So we just showed up, and I immediately realized that there were all these different musicians, some of whom I recognized, some of whom I didn't—especially the modern ones, the post-bop ones, because I narrow-mindedly had no interest in that at age fifteen."

Having got up early and dressed for the occasion, you might suppose that Smith was upset at missing the final shot, but according to Lipskin that wasn't the case: "No, he didn't even talk about it, not at all. That photo appeared, it was in one issue, and that was it."

Another notable absentee from the photo, Duke Ellington, greatly admired Smith's playing, and Smith's influence on the great Washingtonian is something Lipskin has no doubt about. "Duke? Oh sure, and Fats (Waller), in fact, there are certain records where you can hear Willie's phrasing, and of course there's Duke Ellington's 'Portrait of the Lion,' which, though using a typical Willie riff and rhythm, ironically doesn't capture his essence as much as Ellington's piano playing sometimes does. One of the reasons that Duke was very fond of Willie was (because) in 1923 Duke came from Washington with a little pick-up band to try to make it in New York, and Willie befriended him and was good to him."

Of his great mentor, Willie "The Lion" Smith, Lipskin says: "There isn't a day goes by that I don't think of Willie, or Fats Waller or James P. Johnson, because I continue to learn from them.

"This picture cut across jazz idioms, it was sort of like a history of jazz right there up until that time. That's why there is tremendous significance in the picture—it's not just that it was probably the largest number of jazz musicians ever photographed at once, I think it was also the musical diversity."

The difference in jazz idioms in the late 1950s is brought into focus by a couple of anecdotes from Eddie Locke and Michael Lipskin: "I played with Earl Hines, and I played with Willie 'The Lion' Smith, just him and me," Locke explains. "The first time I played with a stride pianist it was a disaster! I couldn't find where I was, I couldn't do nothin.' You gotta be in a whole different mind set when you're playing with a stride pianist."

Lipskin throws some light on the dynamics of drumming with stride pianists: "The first difficulty is that most younger drummers are not used to the pre-bop swing beat of stride; those trained in a post-bop method of playing want to really be too busy, during accompaniment, and are not used to playing with the stride rhythmic nuance.

"All you would have had to do was watch Sonny Greer play, or old Jo Jones, Fats Waller's drummer. If you listen to the best of them they sound as if they're playing foxtrot with swing, and you really just play time. I'm not putting down one or the other styles; it's just that it's very hard for people who grow up in the bop world to really play pre-bop, you know, swing Fats Waller-style."

One wonders if there wasn't perhaps an element of mutual suspicion between the die-hards of the old school and the adherents to the newer styles of jazz, but Hank Jones soon quashes this theory: "There's a bond, a sort of invisible bond between all musicians who play jazz. There is always that bond, it holds them together."

Nat Hentoff concurs: "Ellington once told me when I was in my early twenties: 'Forget those categories—modern, cutting edge, it's all music and you take each individual as they come. Music is either good or bad.' I think most of the players that day and I hope since, have a feeling that it's, what I call, the family of jazz.

"I interviewed Lester Young at his home in Queens, and as we were going out, saying goodbye—here's Lester Young, Pres, the hippest of all the people—and Lester Young said to me: 'By the way, do you like Dixieland?' and I said: 'Sure, when it's good.' And he said: 'Me too.'"

One musician in the picture is something of a mystery man—Bill Crump. He is standing behind, and perfectly framed by, Coleman Hawkins and Stuff Smith. Says Hank Jones: "I didn't know him, but if he was in the picture he must have been a player of some sort, but I never saw him afterwards." Marian McPartland says: "Bill Crump? I forget what instrument he played. I don't remember what he looked like." Eddie Locke: "Wasn't he a saxophonist?" Nat Hentoff: " Now you've got me wondering. I am just guessing now, but I bet he was an FBI agent, because these people are dangerous if they are all for free expression. If you ever find out, let me know."

Tongue in cheek, and with not a little mischief, Hentoff's comment harks back to the Edgar Hoover period when paranoia reigned and the FBI kept files on numerous jazz people suspected of harbouring communist sympathies, including Louis Armstrong and Hentoff himself.

Bill Crump was in fact registered in New York's Local 802 as a reed and flautist, but is not known to have ever recorded. Little information exists on him and not even the date of his death is clear. However, there is a certain symmetry about his inclusion in that picture, as in a way he is a reminder of all the journeymen jazz musicians who toil to make a living at the music they love. They are all part of the family.

The issue of Esquire in which Art Kane's photograph first appeared was titled "The Golden Age of Jazz." Hank Jones in 2009 is a sprightly, eloquent, ninety-year old who released a new CD in the middle of 2008. He recalls the New York of half a century ago: "People like Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins, they were all working at 52nd Street at one time or another. At any given time you could see Coleman Hawkins or Lester Young, or (trombonist) Bill Harris, (drummer) Buddy Rich all those guys, and I was working there with a small group at the Three Deuces. 52nd Street wasn't called Swing Street for nothing—there were clubs on both side of the street for a block. It was really some scene."

Marian McPartland also recalls the exciting musical panorama at that time: "I used to go down to the Vanguard to hear Bill Evans all the time; that was what I did in my spare time. We could go almost every night because we finished at three o'clock and he didn't finish until four, so we could go down there and catch the last set."

In terms of musical diversity it was indeed a golden era of jazz music—but just how easy it was or wasn't for the musicians to make a decent living is another thing altogether. Nat Hentoff says that there wasn't much of a safety net for jazz musicians: "It was never easy being a jazz musician economically. I think there were times when even Duke was hard up for money. He used to tell me: 'I have these expensive gentlemen to go on the road with me.' Jazz musicians don't have pension plans, they don't have medical plans—and even if you're a sideman doing reasonably well, how well is that?"

There is a certain amount of bitterness in Eddie Locke's voice when he looks back. "Man, a lot of those jazz guys got nothin.' It's always been the same. If you weren't a soloist in a band you didn't get no recognition."

Michael Lipskin sympathises with Locke's opinion: "I can understand that. Even though he was playing with Coleman Hawkins and Roy Eldridge they too were not economically appreciated—they didn't make much money at all.

"The last time I saw Coleman Hawkins was in the Thelonious Monk band, and he was a very unhappy old man who didn't look well and who was just drinking straight whiskey. I thought this was a terrible situation. There were times when I had to bring Willie ('The Lion' Smith) food; he would be too proud to ask. But that's really what was going on.

"Eddie is not alone in feeling jazz musicians weren't treated fairly. The only people who were, but it was sort of in an ironic way, were Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington or Count Basie, who all became commercially very successful. But the rest of them were paid very little, and as they got older the Dave Brubecks came on and other people started not getting gigs.

"Black people in America certainly weren't treated with respect, except for a few great artists. Even in 1943, Fats Waller's last year of life, he had a hit show on Broadway and he couldn't stay in the same hotel as his white actors. Even Art Tatum suffered; he played in bars most of his life, and he died because he didn't have any funds for medical treatment. All these rich white people in Hollywood, who kept inviting him to their homes to play piano, would they ever ask, you know: 'Let me know when you're sick or you have a medical problem.' To my knowledge not one of them ever did that."

Forty years after Esquire's historic assembly of jazz greats, Life magazine hired photographer Gordon Parks to recreate Kane's picture, and invited the surviving musicians to gather once again on the same brownstone steps on 126th Street. "It was kind of eerie man," remembers Eddie Locke, "all those people gone!" Marian McPartland says: "Oh, it was amazing! There was hardly anybody there. Such a huge group of people and so many of them had died."

In fact, just eleven musicians had survived: Gerry Mulligan, Marian McPartland, Milt Hinton, Horace Silver, Art Farmer, Hank Jones, Sonny Rollins, Benny Golson, Chubby Jackson, Eddie Locke and Johnny Griffin—as well as Taft Jordan Jr., the small child who had sat beside Count Basie on the curb nearly forty years previously. All bar Sonny Rollins turned up.

Looking back on that reunion a decade later, Hank Jones remains a little mystified: "It did feel a little strange because all those people who had passed were not in their positions—I suppose you could call it bizarre. I didn't see much point in doing the second picture when all those people were missing."

Park's photograph did indeed emphasise those who had passed. Somebody who would probably have agreed with Hank Jones' notion to instead focus on the living was writer/radio producer Jean Bach. Several years previously she had hit upon the idea to make a documentary about Kane's photograph and those in it. In a real labour of love she interviewed many of those who had been in Art Kane's photograph, and used home-movie footage shot that day by Milt Hinton's wife Mona, as well as stills taken by Dizzy Gillespie, Mary Lou Williams, Milt Hinton and Michael Lipskin.

"That movie was one of the greatest things ever made about jazz," says Eddie Locke. "Why? Because no-one was telling them what to say, and nobody had a bad word to say about anyone—it was really uplifting." Bach's A Great Day in Harlem was nominated for an Academy Award in 1994.

There is one hilarious exchange between Benny Golson and Horace Silver, but it is the moving affirmation by Art Farmer towards the end of the film which stands out, going some way to explaining not only the enduring appeal of Art Kane's photograph, but also the magic of jazz itself. "If I start counting heads, and I think about how many people are no longer there anymore, it still comes as a shock to me, because we don't think about people not being here. If we think about Lester Young, we don't think 'yeah, well Lester Young was here but he's not here anymore.' Lester Young is here, Coleman Hawkins is here, Roy Eldridge is here—they are in us and they will always be alive."

Ian Patterson wishes to thank Jeremy Monteiro, who interviewed Marian McPartland and arranged the Hank Jones interview for the author.

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