That Great Day
On August 12, 1958, a photograph - The Big Picture - was commissioned for Esquire Magazine's feature issue Esquire's World Of Jazz (Gillenson, 1975). Three people created the photograph that became the centerfold of Esquire's 'Golden Age Of Jazz' issue, which came out in January 1959. Harold Hayes was the innovative and unconventional features editor of Esquire. Robert Benton was the graphics editor who decided to include a batch of new photographs of jazz musicians for the special jazz issue of the magazine. Art Kane was the unknown (non) photographer hired to take pictures for the proposed jazz issue. Although Kane had never taken any professional photographs, he was a dyed-in-the-wool jazz enthusiast, and then Seventeen Magazine's art director. Kane suggested that a group photograph be taken in Harlem, the cradle of New York Jazz.
Esquire wrote letters to every jazz musician whose address could be found. They also passed the word in jazz clubs, at musicians' bars, and at Musicians' Union Local 802 on 52nd Street in Manhattan. Then they followed up with telephone calls the day before the show. Word went out on the jazz grapevine, and jazz journalist, Nat Hentoff, endeavored to spread the word too:
Nobody knew how many people would show up (at 10.00 in the morning). But at the appointed hour they began coming, by subway at the Lexington Avenue 125th Street stop, by taxi, and some even on foot, to the brownstone apartment building at 17 West 126th Street, between Park and Fifth Avenues. The main photograph, taken by Art Kane, became the centerfold of Esquire's January 1959 issue - The Golden Age Of Jazz (Graham and Morgenstern, 2000: 7).
Fifty-eight musicians began trickling in on time on that Saturday morning. Jazz musicians are night creatures, and one musician at the shoot said he was astonished to discover that there were two ten o’clocks in each day. They included New Orleans, New York, Chicago, Kansas City and bebop musicians, all participants in the glorious scene of jazz as it existed in the late fifties in New York.
Three luminaries not pictured were Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker, but many who showed up were legends, including Roy Eldridge, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Gene Krupa, Willie 'The Lion' Smith and Thelonious Monk (Crowell, 1995: E1, E5).
The resulting photo in Esquire (January of 1959) showed fifty-seven musicians. Willie 'The Lion' Smith had gotten bored and hot and wandered off. Marian McPartland couldn't get her husband Jimmy out of bed to turn up so early in the day, so she went alone. There were only three women in the photograph eventually captured by photographer Art Kane. Black pianist Mary Lou Williams is standing next to Marian, and black singer Maxine Sullivan is further along in the front row. Marian is the attractive white woman in the foreground wearing the halter-neck white dress and carrying a large portmanteau. She was forty years of age:
'It was one of the most wonderful days,' McPartland recalled. 'I just feel bad that my husband wouldn't get out of bed so he missed it. If I had known what I was getting into I would have absolutely thrown him out of the bed. I really didn't know it was going to be such a monumental event. People think of that time in the '50s as the Golden Age of Jazz. People were mellower and good to each other. It was a wonderful occasion. I'm very proud and grateful to be in it' (Sunderland, 2003).
One source highlights the images and movements of the photo shoot:
Thelonious Monk in a light sports coat and dark glasses. Marian McPartland in a halter dress not unlike one worn by Marilyn Monroe in another famous photograph. Dizzy Gillespie acting up; Count Basie sitting down. These are the images forever captured by Art Kane in his 1958 photograph that became the basis for the Academy Award nominated documentary, A Great Day In Harlem (Klisz, 1995).
What Marian McPartland also remembers about that day was the easygoing camaraderie among the musicians that transcended race, generations and even gender (Seymour, 1995: B3). A vivid description of the events of the day appeared in Magill's Survey of Cinema:
That the photo came together at all is one of the miracles of the moment. It was Art Kane's first job as a professional photographer, and the assistant he chose was even more of a rookie, at one time loading the film backwards in Kane's camera.
But before Art Kane could even take that historical photograph, he had to get the musicians' attention. With all the mayhem that occurred when the musicians got together, the purpose of the gathering was becoming irrelevant to the meeting itself. Long after the photographer lost control of the group, ineffectually using a rolled up newspaper for a megaphone to be heard over the din of the crowd, some of the musicians started to get tired of standing. Count Basie, for one, took a seat on the curb, to the delight of about ten of the neighborhood boys who joined him there. Other children were beginning to hang out of adjacent windows to see what all the noise was about.
Luckily for the photographer, Rex Stewart had brought his trumpet. And when he decided enough was enough, Stewart blew his horn. That did the trick. After 120 exposures, Art Kane finally got his famous picture of the jazz greats, spilling down the steps and onto the sidewalk in front of an old brownstone between Fifth and Madison Avenues in Harlem. The rest is history (Magill's Survey Of Cinema, June 15, 1995).
The final selection from Art Kane's shots duly appeared as a double-page spread in Esquire Magazine’s January 1959 issue entitled The Golden Age Of Jazz. It caused a sensation and soon became a permanent part of jazz history.
In 1994, Marian McPartland’s close friend, Jean Bach, brought the photograph to life with a documentary. The famous image had stuck in her head, and she had been a passionate jazz fan since she was eighteen years of age, hanging out with Duke Ellington and Roy Eldridge.
Jean Bach explained that she knew about the original photograph taken by Art Kane, and that it had run in Esquire. A light went on when she noticed that only a dozen or so of the fifty-seven people in the picture were still alive. She decided to interview the survivors, and film the interviews to capture their oral histories.
To begin, Jean Bach placed an ad in the Amsterdam News, but it took her four years of sporadic interviews to tracking down surviving musicians. She sought help from contacts in the film industry, gained permissions from music publishers to use their music - a formidable task in itself - and the film was finally finished in June 1994. During the 1958 photo shoot, bassist Milt Hinton, a fine amateur photographer, had handed his wife, Mona, his 8mm movie camera and told her to aim it and press the button. He himself began taking stills; so did a student of Willie ‘The Lion’, named Mike Lipskin.
Jean Bach decided to combine this footage with her interviews, and she requisitioned film editor Susan Peehl, whose clean and elegant editing of A Great Day mixed interviews, archival footage, sequences from the 1957 CBS television special The Sound Of Jazz, Mona Hinton’s film, Milt Hinton’s and Mike Lipskin’s stills, and more than a dozen of Art Kane’s alternative shots.
Gannett News Service brings the atmosphere of the ‘great day’ to life:
A Great Day In Harlem gives the photograph texture, showing the schmoozing, the disorganization, the innate coolness that was present for those few hours. Never before, or since, were so many jazz legends in one place - Max Kaminsky, George Wettling, Bud Freeman, Pee Wee Russell, Buster Bailey, Scoville Browne, Bill Crump, Ernie Wilkins, Sahib Shahab, Sonny Rollins. Jazz junkie Jean Bach had been fascinated by the photo for years. With cameraman Steve Petropoulos, she filmed interviews with Gillespie, [Marian] McPartland, Art Blakey, Sonny Rollins and others. Some of the memories are hazy and Blakey and others are difficult to understand at times, their voices as soft and hazy as the smoke that rises from a late-night jam session. Gigi Gryce, Hank Jones, Eddie Locke, Horace Silver, Luckey Roberts, Maxine Sullivan, Jimmy Rushing, Joe Thomas, Stuff Smith, Coleman Hawkins, Rudy Powell. Edited by Susan Peehl, the film mixes the interviews with 8mm images shot by Mona Hinton, wife of bassist Milt (who is in the picture) with black-and-white stills and archival performance footage. The day, the era, are alive (Klisz, 1995).
Kathryn Altman, wife of film director Robert Altman, recognized what a jewel Jean Bach had in hand, and suggested that she edit the oral histories into a film. The finished documentary was entitled A Great Day In Harlem, a rich compilation of interviews, performances and archival footage about the taking of the historic 1958 Art Kane photograph depicting The Golden Age Of Jazz. The documentary featured many of the living legends in the picture reminiscing about where they were in their lives when the photo was taken. Jean Bach videotaped interviews with Johnny Griffin and Art Farmer, then living in Europe, and captured Bud Freeman in a retirement home. She caught up with the elusive Art Blakey, and found Gerry Mulligan in Connecticut. Some interviews were taped in her own home, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney's old studio on Washington Mews, including those with Dizzy Gillespie, Buck Clayton, Chubby Jackson, Sonny Rollins and Marian McPartland, the only surviving woman from the original shoot:
'It was marvelous,' says Bach from her home. 'I was interested in getting oral histories from these people, many of whom were not going to be with us much longer. They were my friends and I wanted to preserve their ideas and knowledge for the rest of the world' (Crowell, 1995: E5).
Sahib Shahab died soon after his interview, and Art Blakey three months later. Since then, Bud Freeman, Dizzy Gillespie, Buck Clayton and Max Kaminsky have passed. The film drew upon footage archived by Mark Cantor, the best known jazz-on-film historian in the US, and film clips from The Sound Of Jazz television show, which aired just six months before the Harlem shoot and included many of the same musicians (Vacher, 1995: 10). What Jean Bach created, after living the picture night and day for a year and a half, was a documentary portraying the living history of some of the most significant figures in jazz.
In 1995, A Great Day in Harlem was nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary at the Academy Awards. Sadly, right before the Oscar awards, Art Kane, whose idea it was to take the photograph in the first place, committed suicide. The film did not win the Oscar, but has received widespread acclaim at art theaters throughout the world. The documentary did win the Golden Hugo Award for Best Documentary in the Chicago International Film Festival. It has also been honored at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., and was televised on Cinemax.
According to The New York Times, the film is 'akin to a jazz version of Proust's Madeleine. It resurrects a vanished era when jazz, still relatively uncorrupted by commerce and untouched by electronics, was a jubilant commercial dialogue about the things that matter most.It is really a loving remembrance of a loosely knit community of musicians, the majority of whom are now dead, who cherished one another and created a body of music that will live forever' (Holden, 1995: B6). The picture appeared again in the 1975 issue of Esquire's World Of Jazz as a spread across pages 168 and 169 with the heading 'Jazz Is Too Good For Americans', an earlier essay by trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie.
The documentary was the centerpiece of an all-day program of the Long Island Jazz Festival on July 30, 1995. According to the New York Times:
Mrs. McPartland, the only white woman in the photograph, has gathered some of the survivors, including the bassist Milt Hinton, to play after the screening. It is Mr. Hinton's comment in the movie - 'It was just sheer happiness' - that stays with a viewer. How were so many customary night people assembled on a hot summer morning? That's an element of the magic (Klein, 1995).
On Sunday, February 18, 1996, Marian McPartland was invited to the Port Washington Public Library in her home town on Long Island to host another special showing of A Great Day In Harlem (The Port Washington Public Library Guide, February 1996). In September 1996, a special event took place in the Port Washington Post Office, when a video with Marian McPartland reminiscing about Charlie Mingus, John Coltrane and Louis Armstrong was shown to celebrate a series of jazz stamps (Klein, 1995).
For its February 1996 issue, Life magazine sought to recreate history when Gordon Parks was commissioned to photograph eleven of the surviving members of the original photograph on the steps of the brownstone building at 17 West 126th Street in Harlem. Sonny Rollins and Ernie Wilkins were unable to attend, but positioned as they were on that 'great day' in 1958 were Hank Jones, Eddie Locke, Horace Silver, Gerry Mulligan, Milt Hinton, Chubby Jackson, Art Farmer, Benny Golson, Johnny Griffin, Marian McPartland and Taft Jordan Jr. (seated), who had accompanied his trumpeter father to the original shoot and sat on the curb right next to Count Basie. The building, now a roofless shell, had not held up as well as had some of the musicians. Contributing photographer, Gordon Parks, took the picture, a sort of victory lap for the survivors (Okrent, 1996). For Marian McPartland, the only woman survivor, her memories of the day were bitter sweet, and she lamented, 'I was filled with both fond memories and sadness. The house where we stood was all broken down and boarded up' (Carson, 1996: 14).
Marian recalled her sadness:
We were told to stand where we had stood in the original picture. I was so sad because I had to stand alone. The people who stood on either side of me had died. It was very sad to have just the eleven of us [left from the shoot] (Sunderland, 2003).
In a recent interview, Marian McPartland recalled how tough it was with just a few survivors:
It was kind of tough. And seeing how the whole place had deteriorated in the past years. The house that we stood in front of was boarded up. There was graffiti all over it, and the other houses weren't well kept. The first time that we were there, they were really quite well kept. The street was neat, but now everything seemed run down. Milt Hinton said, 'Gee, I've lasted longer than this street has!' (Enstice and Stockhouse, 2004: 246).
The next day, Life invited eighty jazz artists to pose for a new Great Day shot. One hundred and fifty-six musicians showed up, and photographer Joe McNally seized the spirit. Life claimed: 'Never had so much talent been gathered in a single room, their faces expressing variations on the original theme - new notes, improvisations, tangents off the uniquely American melody of jazz' (Okrent, 1996: 71).
The number of survivors of that historic date in 1958 has dwindled further, but Marian McPartland, the only white woman in the photograph and a survivor of many jazz years, is one of the select few. It has been suggested by writer Gene Seymour that Marian McPartland's guest list for Piano Jazz reflects the range of musicians gathered together for The Big Picture:
Given jazz's present balkanized state, the broad reach of McPartland's guest list suggests that her radio show is one of the few places where one can find the boundary-breaching sense of community celebrated in A Great Day In Harlem. McPartland may covet such connections more deeply than others given the resistance she encountered among American jazz musicians to a British woman instrumentalist first making her way on their turf (Seymour, 1995: B3).
In Australia, As It Happened: A Great Day In Harlem has proven to be a landmark event in jazz history. It was shown on SBS Television on Thursday, December 12, 1996, bringing into viewers' lounge rooms a dozen or more surviving jazz greats vividly and compellingly recalling, on film, how it all happened:
Interspersed with informed commentary from Quincy Jones, Marian McPartland, Nat Hentoff among others, are cuts from the jazz originals as they played in their heydays. Cut, in one minute, to traditional jazz clarinettist Pee Wee Russell jamming his heart out; then for another contrast, to contemporary pianist Thelonious Monk. Or dip into equally rare footage of Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Count Basie, Billie Holiday, Roy Eldridge, Maxine Sullivan, Gerry Mulligan and Henry 'Red' Allen - really too many to mention.
The spontaneity, captured here, makes the music still fresh; the immediacy of creation is preserved (Meyers, 1996).
Marian McPartland has become a spokesperson for both the documentary and for a truly American art form - jazz. She has achieved this through her involvement in the original photo and her friendship with Jean Bach, being one of the jazz figures still alive, and through promoting the documentary in events such as the Port Washington Public Library screening.
Gillenson, L. W. (ed.) (1975) Esquire's World Of Jazz, New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company
Graham, C. and Morgenstern, D. (2000) The Great Jazz Day, Emeryville, CA: Woodford Publishing Inc
Klisz, T. (1995) 'Jazz Greats Forever Grace Documentary', Gannett News Service, June 13
Unknown author (1995) 'A Great Day In Harlem', Magill's Survey Of Cinema, June 15
Vacher, P. (1995) 'Jazz On The Screen', Jazz Journal International, p. 10
Crowell, M. T. (1995) 'Harlem', The San Diego Union Tribune, May 19, pp. E1, E5
Sunderland, C. (2004) 'Marian McPartland: Queen Of Piano Jazz', Available: http://www.allaboutjazz.com [May 15, 2004]
Seymour, G. (1995) 'The Ivory Queen Reversing The Ageing Process: Marian McPartland's Latest Work Is The Finest In A Distinguished Career', New York Newsday, April 6, p. B3
Holden, S. (1995) 'Conjuring Up The Innocent And Golden Days Of Jazz', The New York Times, February 17, p. B6
Klein, A. (1995) 'A Life's Memories From The "Queen" Of Jazz', The New York Times, July 16, p. 13
Unknown author (1996) 'Marian McPartland Introduces Landmark Jazz Film', The Port Washington Public Library Newsletter, Issue no. 95, February
Carson, M. Y. (1996) '"Great Day" Pt. II: A Bittersweet Homecoming', DownBeat, January, p. 14
Okrent, D. (1996) 'Another Great Day For Jazz', Life, February, pp. 63-71
Enstice, W. and Stockhouse, J. (2004) 'Interview With Marian McPartland,' in Jazzwomen: Conversations with Twenty-One Musicians, Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, pp. 230-251
Seymour, G. (1995) 'The Ivory Queen', New York Newsday, April 6, p. B3
Meyers, N. (1996) 'A Great Day, Indeed', The Courier Mail, December 11