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

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

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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."

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