Sunday, October 08, 2006
A Great Day in Harlem
I went into a bar in Tallin, Estonia, because I heard some jazz coming out, and there on the wall was a copy of a photo that I have on my kitchen wall - a present from my son.
It was a good clue to the age of the bar’s proprietor - because this picture would not mean much to anyone who’s not a sixty-plus-year-old jazz fan. (I.e. anyone who reads this blog.) But to those who are it was the most significant jazz portrait ever made
The photograph was taken in August, 1958 in front of a 126th Street New York brownstone, and the 57 characters in it include the top jazz musicians of the day.
For jazz lovers, these were the best of times, and Esquire magazine commissioned the picture for the cover of a special jazz edition. It was taken by Art Kane, a young freelance designer, and it was his first photographic assignment.
The biggest challenge was not so much artistic as logistical: how did they manage to assemble together on one day so many top jazzmen and women? Jazz musicians travel a lot and work very late, and on any given morning, would normally be sleeping off the exertions and excesses of the previous night. (One of them said he never knew there were two ten-o’clocks in one day.)
But there they all are, gathered by chance – or instinct - according to their instrument of choice, and roughly in their positions on the bandstand. Drummers and bass players at the back – Buddy Rich, Art Blakey and Charlie Mingus; trumpeters on the right – Dizzy Gillespie, Roy Eldridge and Bunny Berigan; saxophone players to the left – Sonny Rollins, Coleman Hawkins; pianists Thelonius Monk and Marian McPartland in the middle, and, in front, the singers – Maxine Sullivan, Jimmy Rushing. Others are gathered according to their affiliations and egos: bandleader Count Basie sits on the pavement right in the front. Anyone interested in jazz should see the documentary called A Great Day in Harlem, produced by a lady named Jean Bach, on the making of this photograph.
Sadly, most of the musicians in it are now dead, and the photographer himself committed suicide in 1995 at the age of 79.
But they are all commemorated in that picture on my kitchen wall – and there they’ll stay, until either I join them, or until some other old jazz-lover steals it.
Those fiendish Frenchies will steal anything.
But they have gone too far this time. Not content with having stolen from us the sandwich, Earl Grey, bacon, horse-racing, football, Jane Birkin, Petula Clark and Concorde, they have now founded La Féderation Française de Conkers, and are sending their best 22 conkers players to compete in the World Conkers Championships –in England, of course. (Bet they’ve marinated their conkers in quick-setting concrete.)
Why can't they steal Tony Blair?