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A Great Day in Harlem: behind Art Kane's classic 1958 jazz photograph

Updated: Aug 8, 2022

The young art director’s idea to photograph as many of the luminaries of the New York jazz scene as possible together for Esquire’s 1959 Golden Age of Jazz edition began his career as a photographer. Police closed the road to all but residential traffic, and 57 musicians duly assembled in Harlem between Fifth and Madison Avenues. The group included Dizzy Gillespie, Art Blakey, Thelonius Monk, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Charles Mingus, Gerry Mulligan and Count Basie.

(From left) Eddie Locke, Jay C Higginbotham, Charles Mingus, Ernie Wilkins, Bill Crump. ‘Eddie Locke told me he rounded the corner of 126th Street … and nearly fainted. The giants of jazz! His heroes. Right there! Basie, Dizzy, Monk, Pres, The Hawk, Blakey, Joe Jones and on and on. Knees knocking, he said he almost fled … not feeling like he belonged in that gathering of titans. But then he spotted another young lion, Horace Silver, who he had gigged with, so he made his way over and stood with his friend, taking his place in that historic moment’ – Jonathan Kane (Art’s son)

Front row, from left: Bill Crump, Stuff Smith, Sonny Rollins, Coleman Hawkins. At their back you can spot George Wettling, Bud Freeman, Pee Wee Russell, Buster Bailey, Oscar Pettiford. Behind them, Sonny Greer, Jimmy Jones, Charles Mingus, Osie Johnson

Front row, from left: Marian McPartland, Lawrence Brown, Emmett Berry, Mary Lou Williams (turned back to the camera), Vic Dickenson, Thelonious Monk. Top left, Oscar Pettiford

Lester Young, Gerry Mulligan, Art Farmer, Gigi Gryce. ‘Black and white: two colours 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’ – Quincy Jones

From left; Benny Golson, Sonny Rollins, Thelonious Monk. ‘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’ – Benny Golson

Luckey Roberts, Willie ‘The Lion’ Smith

Front row, from left: Stuff Smith, Marian McPartland, Miff Mole, Gene Krupa, Jimmy Rushing, Roy Eldridge, Max Kaminsky, Hilton Jefferson. Laughing on the right, up the stairs, is Dizzy Gillespie. ‘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’ – Art Kane

Dizzy Gillespie crossing the street with a camera. ‘The fact that all 57 musicians agreed to show up for a 10am photoshoot is a true testament to how dedicated they were. These musicians did not gather together on this early morning because they thought they would be paid or instantly be made an international superstar. Rather, they did it to celebrate the golden age of jazz and all that it stood for. Jazz was never just a genre, it was a way of life. And it still is’ – Quincy Jones

I have no idea how they decided to stand where they did, and with whom, but they did. Slowly they formed themselves into a big group … and I saw they couldn’t have got themselves into a better position’ – Art Kane

Count Basie’s hat was repeatedly stolen by local kids until Kane surrendered and put them in the shot too. ‘So here you have a non-professional photographer, who’s got an assistant who’s never loaded a camera before, taking this picture which 30 years later is probably the best-known group photograph ever taken if jazz musicians’ – Art Kane

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