Art Kane Harlem 1958, the 60th Anniversary Edition


At the unearthly hour of 10.00 am on 12 August 1958 Art Kane (1925-1995), a tyro photographer, with the logistical help of critic Nat Hentoff and the support of Esquire magazine editor Harold Hayes, took a picture of 57 jazz musicians (only three were women), on the steps of a brown stone apartment house on 125th Street between Fifth and Madison Avenues in Harlem. They included Mary Lou Williams, Marion McPartland, Maxine Sullivan, Jo Jones, Roy Eldridge, Sonny Rollins, Benny Golson, Stan Getz, Jimmy Rushing, Lawrence Brown, Horace Silver, Hank Jones and (sitting on the curb) Count Basie, obviously enjoying each other’s company.

Notably absent were Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Artie Shaw, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Miles Davis. Willie “The Lion” Smith, who finally got tired of waiting for the shoot to begin, sat on the next door stoop and was missing from probably the most famous group photograph in jazz history. Known as “Harlem 1958”, it featured in a special Golden Age Of Jazz” issue of Esquire on 1 January 1959. Also included were Kane’s individual “Jazz Portraits” of Louis Armstrong, Lester Young, Duke Ellington (about to board an “A” Train), and Charlie Parker’s tombstone in Kansas City.

But it was the Harlem photo (a double-page spread) that propelled Kane to national and international fame, which only increased after the release of Jean Bach’s Academy Award nominated movie A Great Day in Harlem narrated by Quincy Jones and released in 1995.

This lavish Wall of Sound celebration of a famous picture (available in standard and “de luxe” editions) has some good features. These include forewords by Quincy Jones (who was in Paris at the time of the picture shoot), and Benny Golson (who with Sonny Rollins is the only surviving member of the illustrious assemblage). There are also some succinct recollections of the event by Gerry Mulligan (“I said I can’t believe all these people are going to show up, and there they were”), Marian McPartland (“Can you imagine if everybody had their instruments and played?”), and Bud Freeman (“The extraordinary thing about this picture is that there were so many innovators. There isn’t one person … who wasn’t a featured soloist … all good guys, good friends, no jealous egomaniacs”.

Jonathan Kane, a musician and photographer, has affectionate memories of his father – and reminds us that he took the original album cover photo for Erroll Garner’s famous Concert By the Sea LP, with his mother, June Kane, posing on the rocks at Big Sur. (In the latest CD release she has been airbrushed out and replaced by a young African-American model). 

There are brief but pedestrian profiles of all the participants – “The Legends” – but here (as elsewhere) typographical and punctuation errors offend the eye; Errol Garner, Vic Dickenson, Thelonius Monk and Emmet Berry are among the casualties. More seriously, over 120 “frame by frame” photographs appear without any identification – only on page 123 are the participants actually named. Unfortunately, there is no bibliography or index, while the seminal Esquire issue is barely mentioned.

Added “extras” include a “still” of seven unnamed African-American actors on the set of the movie Pete Kelly’s Blues, and photographs of Harlem scenes including Lewis H. Michaux’s famous African National Memorial Bookstore, a black Baptist church and gospel choir, and Kane’s excellent 1967 Esquire commissioned studies of Aretha Franklin and her sisters for his photo essay on “Soul”.

With more attention to visual presentation, better proof reading and a more informative text, this would be an excellent compilation. As it stands, my advice is to see A Great Day in Harlem, its interviews with many of the participants, and then (perhaps), read and view this flawed mini magnum opus.

Art Kane Harlem 1958 The 60th Anniversary Edition
By Jonathan Kane, forewords By Quincy Jones and Benny Golson. Wall of Sound Editions, pp167. ISBN 9788894366631