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

Ian Patterson By

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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.

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