The Picture--A Great Day in HarlemHonoring Jazz Artists Everywhere.
Without a doubt, it’s the most famous jazz artists picture of all time. There were fifty-seven great jazz musicians who gathered together on the steps of a Harlem brownstone early in the morning one day in August 1958 to commemorate the history of jazz. See www.harlem.org
Also significant that morning were the jazz artists who were missing. Photographer Art Kane would not be shooting such notables as Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Bill Evans, John Coltrane, Billie Holiday, and Ella Fitzgerald. Charlie Parker was excused. He had died three years earlier along with Art Tatumtwo years earlier.
Nevertheless, those giants of jazz artists absent, there presence was felt. It was represented by the present-and-accounted-for who played with them and who were inspired by their greatness, and likewise inspired the greats. Like a family reunion, if you weren’t physically there, you were there in spirit.
The shoot was underwritten by Esquire magazine, which was keen to recognize the contributions that jazz artists everywhere had make not only to the American music culture, but music culture on the international stage as well.
Many photographs of famous individual jazz artists exist, but this group photo of 1958 best captures the spirit of the jazz familya spirit that had been growing since the early 1900s.
It was Harold Hayes, Esquire’s features editor and jazz artists enthusiast, who dreamed up the idea. With encouragement from graphic designer Robert Benton, the services of Art Kane, at that point a designer for Seventeen magazine, were obtained to brainstorm setting ideas for a picture.
Kane proposed gathering together as many jazz artists as possible on 126th street in uptown Harlem and shoot their picture.
Ironically, Kane was not a photographer, owned no equipment, and had never professionally photographed anyone or any group. This, however, did not prove to be an obstacle.
The secret for so many jazz artists turning out for the shoot was not the result of any elaborate plan. In fact, it was rather simple. Leading jazz artists writer Nat Hentoff had been contacted by Harold Hays of Esquire with a request. He called up Hentoff 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?”
Hentoff went on to say about the request to round up a bunch of jazz artists, “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 photographthey 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."
It wasn’t long before postings went up at all the jazz clubs, and at the Musician's Union Local 802 office. There was going to be a photo shoot and it was scheduled for ten o'clock on the morning of August the 12th, 1958.
To get jazz artists to a 10 a.m. shoot was ambitious to say the least. The fact that fifty-seven showed up may well be attributed to the fact that jazz artists sets always ran well into the late hours, which means that the mindset may well have been not on having to get up early to make the shoot, but rather on just playing a little longer.
No matter what, history was in the making for jazz artists in August of 1958. Ask any true jazz musician, young or old today about A Great Day in Harlem, and they are all sure to say, “Great Picture!”