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

Ian Patterson By

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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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