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

Ian Patterson By

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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.
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