They gathered around the steps of a Harlem brownstone on a summer morning in 1958, singers and writers, clarinetists and trumpet players, trombonists and drummers, black and white, men and women. It was an unlikely setting for an unlikely group, and the chattering congregation drew the interest of local children, excited youngsters who flitted among them and contributed to the din.
The 57 gathered adults were there to pose for a photograph, and they were united by one thing: jazz. They’d been brought together by legendary photographer Art Kane, on assignment for Esquire magazine, who was determined to get a picture of the biggest names and talents in the business; though none of those assembled may have realized it at the time, the photo would become iconic – and historic.
It would come to be known commonly as A Great Day in Harlem, appearing in Esquire in January 1959 and inspiring a documentary about the shoot which was nominated for an Oscar in 1994. Now a new book, 60 years after that fateful August morning, celebrates the historic gathering and image – Art Kane: 1958, published this month, for the first time showcases every single frame from the shoot that brought together the most influential jazz musicians of the Golden Era of jazz.
Acclaimed photographer Art Kane went to great lengths to gather together 57 of the biggest names and talents in jazz for a photograph in Harlem in August 1958, which eventually ran in Esquire magazine in January of the following year
Kane sent out requests to everyone from managers and agents to labels to get all the artists together in one location; some of the renowned talents included Dizzy Gillespie, Gerry Mulligan, Taft Jordan, Marian McPartland and Mary Lou Williams
Although the main photo of all artists posed together is the shot that became famous, a new book – Art Kane: 1958 – for the first time reveals all of the frames snapped that day, such as this relaxed shot of Luckey Roberts and Willie ‘The Lion’ Smith
Other artists who turned up for the shoot in Harlem at 10am – an exceptionally early start time for people who made their livings in the late-night world of jazz – included, from left to right: Horace Silver, Luckey Roberts, Sahib Shihab, Eddie Locke and Jimmy Rushing
Dizzy Gillespie crosses the street with a camera as other artists chatter on East 126th Street, between Fifth and Madison Avenues, while local residents and curious children look on
The book includes foreword text by Quincy Jones – who also narrated the documentary – and musician Benny Golson, who participated in the shoot. There’s also an introduction by Jonathan Kane, son of the famed photographer who took his own life at the age of 69 in 1995. Kane’s words, too, are immortalized in the new publication, which includes text from the man himself.
Aside from Golson, others gathered included Dizzy Gillespie, Art Blakey, Thelonius Monk, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Charles Mingus, Gerry Mulligan, Mary Lou Williams, Marian McPartland and Count Basie.
‘I came up with the idea of getting as many musicians together in one place as we could,’ Kane later said of the shoot. ‘It would be sort of a graduation photo or class picture of all the jazz musicians. After I thought about it some more, I decided they should get together in Harlem. After all, that’s where jazz started when it came to New York.’
Golson writes: ‘There was going to be an unusual shooting of a photograph for Esquire Magazine and I was being invited to be a part of it. I couldn’t believe it! Nobody really knew me that early in my career. But zippo, I was there on the intended date. When I arrived, there were all of my heroes.’
They were gathered on East 126th Street, between Fifth and Madison Avenues, brought together after Kane sent requests to agents, record labels, managers, clubs and anywhere else that might prove fruitful. The dozens who turned up were hardly organized, and Count Basie’s hat was repeatedly stolen by neighborhood children – eventually prompting Kane to incorporate the kids into the photo, too.
Quincy Jones, writing in the newly published book of Art Kane shots: ‘During a time in which segregation was very much still a part of our everyday lives, and in a world that often pointed out our differences instead of celebrating our similarities, there was something so special and pure about gathering 57 individuals together, in the name of jazz’
Posing, from left to right, are jazz artists Lester Young, Gerry Mulligan, Art Farmer and Gigi Gryce; Kane later said of the shoot: ‘I came up with the idea of getting as many musicians together in one place as we could. It would be sort of a graduation photo or class picture of all the jazz musicians. After I thought about it some more, I decided they should get together in Harlem. After all, that’s where jazz started when it came to New York’
The artists may not have realized it as they gathered to pose for Kane, but the photo shoot would result in a famous and iconic picture which would inspire pop culture imitations for decades to come – while preserving a unique moment in jazz history
Sahib Shihab looks behind him as Dizzy Gillespie gazes across the street with a camera around his neck; the photo is published for the first time in a new 168-page book with foreword text by Quincy Jones and musician Benny Golson, as well as an introduction by the late photographer’s son, Jonathan Kane
Art Kane, who snapped the frames resulting in an iconic photo that has come to be known as A Great Day in Harlem – the same name as an Oscar-nominated documentary about the 1958 shoot – took his own life in 1995
Participating artists, from left to right, were Vic Dickenson, Lester Young, Gerry Mulligan and Roy Eldridge; the newly published candid frames captured the musicians in a more relaxed and jovial light
The 168-page new book tells the story in vivid detail of that jovial day, including the frames that capture candid shots of the musicians and other scenes of the contained disarray. Though most gathered were dressed in suits and fine clothes, it was unusual to see so many jazz greats up and about so early in the morning – or in the morning at all, given the music styling’s hand-in-hand relationship with nighttime.
Jones writes of the photograph: ‘Black and white: two colors forbidden to be in close proximity, yet captured so beautifully within a single black and white frame. The importance of this photo transcends time and location, leaving it to become not only a symbolic piece of art, but a piece of history. During a time in which segregation was very much still a part of our everyday lives, and in a world that often pointed out our differences instead of celebrating our similarities, there was something so special and pure about gathering 57 individuals together, in the name of jazz.’
When the photo was published in Esquire for its Golden Age of Jazz special issue, it appeared along with a series of Kane’s portraits of other greats, including Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Lester Young and a shot of Charlie Parker’s grave. These images are also included in the new book – and the main photo has often been imitated in pop culture. XXL magazine, for example, recreated the shot at the same location in 1998 for its cover image, this time with 177 hip-hop artists and related musicians, titling the edition The Greatest Day in Hip-Hop History.
It was a respectful nod not only to the jazz artists originally captured but also to the visionary, famed man who snapped the photo; Kane had been named photographer of the year by the American Society of Magazine Photographers in 1964 and received the organization’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 1984. His work from that day in Harlem, however, continues to resonate six decades later.
‘I cannot envision a more beautiful parallel for jazz and art in general; in the moment, you may not realize the impact that you have through your creations, but as this photo demonstrates, the effect and significance will outlast any lifetime,’ Jones writes. ‘Not only is this photo important to the people in it, but it should be a reminder of where we need to be: together.’
From left to right: Eddie Locke, Jay C. Higginbotham, Charles Mingus, Ernie Wilkins and Bill Crump all answered Kane’s invitation to take part in the morning shoot
The front row of this photo shows, from left, Bill Crump, Stuff Smith, Sonny Rollins and Coleman Hawkins; At their back are George Wettling, Bud Freeman, Pee Wee Russell, Buster Bailey and Oscar Pettiford. Behind them are Sonny Greer, Jimmy Jones, Charles Mingus and Osie Johnson
Thelonius Monk stares into the camera, while Vic Dickenson and Lester Young stand behind him as Kane tried to organize the assembled artists on that fateful summer morning – despite the hijinks and noise of local children; the photographer eventually gave up and decided to include the kids in the shoot, which is why they appear seated in the main picture
Benny Golson, far left, stands with Sonny Rollins and Thelonius Monk; Golson writes in the new book: ‘There was going to be an unusual shooting of a photograph for Esquire Magazine and I was being invited to be a part of it. I couldn’t believe it! Nobody really knew me that early in my career. But zippo, I was there on the intended date. When I arrived, there were all of my heroes’
Forty years after the 1958 shoot, XXL magazine assembled modern musicians to recreate Art Kane’s photo for its Collector’s Issue, which it titled The Greatest Day in Hip-Hop History
Kane – who was named photographer of the year by the American Society of Magazine Photographers in 1964 and received the organization’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 1984 – is also known for a picture of Charlie Parker’s grave in Kansas City
Quincy Jones writes in the new book: ‘I cannot envision a more beautiful parallel for jazz and art in general; in the moment, you may not realize the impact that you have through your creations, but as this photo demonstrates, the effect and significance will outlast any lifetime. Not only is this photo important to the people in it, but it should be a reminder of where we need to be: together’