Book Review: Art Kane: Harlem 1958
What makes a black and white photograph of a group of 57 mostly black men in suits standing on the steps of an old brownstone in Harlem facing the camera, and a row of random children sitting on the sidewalk in front of them so iconic?
“A Great Day in Harlem” is the name of the 1995 film by Jean Bach which memorialized the 1958 photo shoot for Esquire Magazine which produced this iconic image. The image which was produced memorialized a coming together of nearly all of the living jazz greats of that moment on a Saturday morning on 125 Street in New York’s Harlem. The Esquire Magazine story which spawned this image was an homage to the greatness of jazz music, those who create it and the musicians who bring their artistry to it and give it life. In this case the backstory is the real story. The film focused almost entirely on the day of the shoot and points out how most jazz musicians rarely see the morning daylight hours as they typically work late into the night and hang out together after their gigs into the small hours. This shoot was called for 10 AM in Harlem - a stretch for all of them. Then, the fact of having all of the reigning royalty of jazz in one place at the same time had arguably never happened before. The group included Charlie Mingus, Thelonius Monk, Gene Krupa, Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie, Marian McPartland, Sonny Rollins to name a few. It is a charming documentary of a unique historical moment. The notable absence of the four big names - Miles Davis, Quincy Jones, Duke Ellington, and John Coltrane is only because they were on out of town gigs.
This book is an affectionate homage to Art Kane, the photographer, the man, and his work by his son Jonathan Kane, on the 60th anniversary of the portrait. It expands on this image as it was, not only his first professional photograph, but arguably his best known, and it catapulted him almost immediately into the top ranks of the profession. Prior to that, he was a talented, young, up-and-coming art director, who had dabbled in photography and who loved jazz. There is an introduction by Quincy Jones which sets the context of black musicians in white America in a time when civil rights was still an issue. Benny Golson, one of the only living members from the photo (Sonny Rollins is the other) gives his hilarious description of the young Art Kane trying to wrangle all of these cool jazz dudes who are busy chatting and high- fiving each other and paying him no mind. They tried a second location and it seems it was like herding cats.
The genesis of the project seems like the essence of jazz - inspired, serendipitous, improvisational and collaborative. Art Kane was working at Seventeen Magazine when his friend who worked at Esquire got the idea of doing an issue around jazz and he called on Kane to do the photography since he knew he was such a big fan of jazz. They put out the call to all of the jazz greats through agents, managers, or directly and miraculously nearly all of them said yes. Kane had never done anything remotely like this either. We are treated to many of the on site images of the various musicians interacting and hanging out and many of the outtakes before the final shot was captured. There are lots of funny casual vignettes.
The book also includes a lot of Art Kane’s portraits and album covers of musicians like Louis Armstrong, Lester Young and an amazing group of early Aretha Franklin portraits and outtakes. Included are a variety of Art Kane’s fashion, portraiture and fine art photos. Jonathan provides insightful and intimate anecdotes about his father and his work. The apple has not fallen far from the tree in this case. Jonathan is a musician and jazz lover as well as a photographer. The book’s publisher, Guido Harari, Wall of Sound Publishing, also has a gallery of the same name which specializes in photography of musicians, mostly rock. It is quite evident that this book is a product of like-minded individuals who really love what they do. And the love shines through. It is a fitting tribute and a total treat to slide into.