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One morning, 60 years ago, 57 jazz legends
came together: “A Great Day in Harlem”

Blog
One morning, 60 years ago, 57 jazz legends came together: “A Great Day in Harlem”

17.04.2018

Text: Cem Kayıran
Illustration: Saydan Akşit

Shot in the month of August in 1958 by Esquire magazine photographer Art Kane, this frame, capturing the most important 57 musicians of the era’s jazz scene altogether, is probably one of the rarest music photographs of all time. From Sonny Rollins and Coleman Hawkins to Thelonious Monk and Charles Mingus, the photograph, which brought many-a-legendary musicians together, was taken in front a stone house in Harlem and with many of the neighborhood kids.

Taken 60 years ago and still just as impressive today, we are going to take a look at some interesting details of the A Great Day in Harlem photograph.

- Receiving word that Esquire magazine was gearing up for a big jazz issue, Art Kane’s idea to take a photo bringing together a crowded group of musicians in what was considered to be the center of jazz, Harlem, didn’t initially seem all that plausible. However, after discussing this dream of a photo with various musicians and friends and receiving positive feedback, Kane succeeded in bringing together exactly 57 musicians for the shoot.

- Lining them up in front a stone house on a street off Madison and Fifth Avenue at 10 in the morning, because he preferred to capture daily life rather than a concert hall or club, Art Kane didn’t turn down the neighborhood kids’ request to be in the photograph either. Though he wasn’t initially sure how exactly to arrange the kids, once musician Count Basie sat down on the pavement, tired of standing, the twelve children that followed her all found their remarkable places in the photograph, all of their own accord.

- Out of all the kids in the photo, the only one that wasn’t from the neighborhood was famous jazz trumpeter Taft Jordan’s son, Taft Jordan Jr. In a later interview, Art Kane expressed that while he was already struggling, trying to restrain 57 musicians, he didn’t want to direct the children and spoil how natural they were, and that this had a clear effect on the resultant photograph.

- Out of the 57 musicians that took part in the shoot, only two of them are alive today. Sharing his thoughts on the relevant photograph in an interview, Sonny Rollins, one of those two living musicians, said: “All of the black musicians lived in Harlem; it was the only place you could live. Harlem was the place. All my idols, like Fats Waller, all these people performed around where I went to school... When I heard about the photo shoot, I knew I had to be there. I didn’t hesitate.”

- The one other musician from A Great Day in Harlem that is still alive is the famous saxophonist Benny Golson, the composer of many jazz classics.

- Published as a two-page spread in Esquire’s January 1959 issue, A Great Day in Harlem has reached such an iconic place in music history that the photograph has even been adapted, spawning variations that bring together and capture musicians from many different genres. Gordon Parks, who gathered 117 hip-hop musicians for XXL magazine in 1998, was paying homage to the legendary shot with his own photograph, entitled A Great Day in Hip-Hop. A Great Day in Paris, which brought 50 American musicians together in the city of Paris, and A Great Day in Hackney, which gathered British jazz musicians in 2016, are the most notable photos among the many adaptations that have been shot in a similar fashion.

- Going behind-the-scenes of the photo shoot and sharing important details regarding the era’s music scene with detailed interviews, the 1994 documentary A Great Day in Harlem is perhaps the work that most clearly conveys what this photograph truly means to jazz history. Nominated for an Oscar in the Best Documentary category, the film was directed by New York radio producer, Jean Bach.

A Great Day In Harlem - Harlem 58 - The Photograph - Part 1

- The photograph also plays an important role in Steven Spielberg’s well-known film, The Terminal. To fill the only missing spot in his father’s autograph collection of all of the musicians in the photograph in question, the film’s main character, Viktor Navorski, played by Tom Hanks, comes to the U.S. to collect one final autograph from Benny Golson.

Rather than providing a list of all the musicians that are in the photograph, it will best-suited for us to direct you to Seewah Cheng’s interactive version. For whichever musician you hover on with your mouse, the website will provide the artist’s name and links to the relevant Wikipedia page for more information about them.

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