T.O.P. Ten: Number 6
On the surface, this doesn't seem like such a remarkable shot: a grouping of people posing for a portrait, mostly black men but including women, whites, and children, on the steps of a city brownstone and spilling down onto the sidewalk, in Harlem, on the island of Manhattan. However, a large part of great photographs is their significance. And the significance of this amazing picture, taken in 1958 by photographer Art Kane, is nearly fathomless.
It's a characteristic of any true renaissance period that it seems to overflow with genius. Giants proliferate, and even the second-rank people are legitimate geniuses who might dominate any other age. One such coalescence of all of the conditions of renaissance occurred in America in the latter half of the 1950s. Although jazz was soon to be doomed by the twin juggernauts of American rock and roll and the "British invasion" personified by four young Liverpudlians, in 1956-1959 it was one of those rare cases of an art form becoming fully mature while it still remained popular and was still very central to mainstream culture. When this picture was taken in 1958, jazz had well over half a century's history as a dominant popular music. It was also the most technically demanding music ever to achieve such popularity. Yet it was smack in the middle of its last great period of innovation.
One could spend almost a lifetime coming to a full appreciation the congress of genius pictured here. There are two websites, harlem.org and the photographer's site, artkane.com, where you can put all these faces together with their names. There's also a documentary movie about the picture, available on DVD, called "A Great Day In Harlem" (right). The picture has old and young, black and white, swing-era big-band to the most modern avant-guard. Count Basie sat down on the curb to rest, and one brave neighborhood kid hesitantly joined him. The ice broken, a bunch of other kids put themselves into the picture (can any of you pros out there imagine an A.D. suffering such a thing in a similar shoot today?). On the far right, two of the greatest trumpeters in history, Roy Eldridge and Dizzy Gillespie, are joking with each other. Towering over them, pale as a ghost, is red-haired Gerry Mulligan. Front and center is Coleman Hawkins, who was coming off one of his best years ever, at least in terms of music on record; just to his left, our right, both wearing shades, are Sonny Rollins and Thelonious Monk. (Monk arrived late; he wanted to make sure he would be last to arrive, so he'd have to go in front—and he wore a light jacket assuming that everyone else would be dressed in dark suits.) Pianist Marianne McPartland and the now-neglected Mary Lou Williams stand side-by-side. Cigarette in mouth, up on the steps, is a young man named Charles Mingus. Both Art Blakey and Gene Krupa were there. So is Milt Hinton. So is Art Farmer. Rememberr Zutty Singleton, who I wrote about a few days ago? He's up on the steps. The great stride pianist Luckey Williams is in the picture...and believe it or not, Willie The Lion Smith was there that day, but for some reason isn't in the final shot! On the right, in back (and wearing his trademark pork-pie hat, even), is Lester Young; opposite him, seemingly glowering at the camera, is Horace Silver. The list goes on. The appreciate the biographies of all these people is to immerse oneself in the history of jazz.
Just remarkable. It's as if all the German and Austrian classical composers had gathered for a group portrait that included Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert, or if somehow we could have a group portrait of all the major Italian Renaissance artists gathered together, old Leonardo next to young Raphael, or all the impressionists. Or all of the Athenian philosophers. All would be as august as this group, but none more so.
Of course, one might wish that Art Kane had used a bigger camera: the limits of the film's and the lens's resolution are pushed hard by the many faces that are so tiny on the negative. But don't be too hard on him. When he shot it for Esquire magazine, it was literally his first assignment ever.
Posted by: MIKE JOHNSTON, with a tip o' the hat to Arthur Elkon