A Great Day in Harlem

Episode One – Danny Silverstone – October 2021

Listen to the playlist

The Photograph

I want to talk about this remarkable posed image taken by a tyro magazine photographer – Art Kane just starting out on his photo career in 1958.

It’s a great introduction to the music, bringing together 3 generations of jazz musicians late one morning – an unheard – of time of the day for jazz musicians to be up and active on a stoop in Harlem with a few local kids drawn out of curiosity as part of the image.

Kane pitched the idea to Life magazine at a time when jazz was going through one of its occasional surges in the popular imagination. Dave Brubeck was in the charts and on the campuses. Miles, Mingus, Rollins, Coltrane were all producing master works-with Miles’s Kind of Blue – still the biggest selling jazz album due to appear the following year.

This picture reveals so much about jazz-its life, its culture, its roots and the wider jazz community. My guess is that most of these people wherever they were born were at this stage living within a few blocks of this image. Sonny Rollins and Coleman Hawkins were neighbours. Lester Young was drinking himself to death at a hotel in the mid-50’s. Count Basie lived in a reasonably large house in Queens. Of course none of these guys were at home much as this was an era when jazz musicians were on the road playing up to 4 sets a night 40+ weeks a year. The road being both NYC and its environs – the jazz capital of the world where all aspiring jazz musicians ultimately migrated to sink or swim in the hothouse of New York jazz, or across the United States, and increasingly at this time on long European tours.

These giants of the music – and very few of these players were journeyman musicians – would have been known, recognized and lionized in their communities. While much – if not all – of the straight or classical worlds may have disregarded them, while segregated America continued to deny them, prestigious venues, hotel rooms, lunch counters and toilets, while agents and record producers continued for the most part to underpay and exploit them. These people were giants within the wider jazz community.

And uniquely this image captures 3 generations of jazz greats all on one day. The musicians who founded and developed jazz in the 1920’s and 30’s- Sonny Greer Duke Ellington’s long time drummer, Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young master saxophonists each recognisable in an instant, Roy Eldridge the great mainstream trumpeter standing next to Dizzy Gillespie one of the cofounders of the bebop generation of the 1940’s Jimmy Rushing-“Mr 5-by-5” who would have played 10000 one-nighters with the Basie band in the 30’s and 40’s.

Then 2 of the 5 pioneers of the bebop revolution – Dizzy and Thelonious Monk. The shoot was held up to ensure the late arrival of Monk who had spent many hours deciding what outfit to wear. No sign of master drummer Max Roach – probably touring, Bud Powell and Kenny Clarke – by then living in Europe and of course Charlie Parker who had died at 34 three years earlier. And Art Blakey who at this stage had begun to lead his hard bop jazz messengers band that would become a production line for young jazz talent over the next 30 years.

Image: Dexter Gordon by Danny Silverstone: 1974

And the 3rd generation – guys in their late 20’s or early 30’s who had already embarked on stellar careers. Art Farmer – and Johnny Griffin – both soon to be bound for Europe, Gigi Grice, Gerry Mulligan the great baritone saxophonist and composer, Charles Mingus whose unique and rowdy genius continues to resonate. And most importantly Sonny Rollins, the son of Sugar Hill in Harlem, and in my view the greatest saxophonist ever to draw breath.

I have often wondered how Art Kane brought this off. So did he. You’ll find a link to a documentary on how the picture was made that includes testimony from Kane. Once the idea was green-lighted, he wrote to as many jazz musicians as he knew or could find inviting them to assemble on the appointed time and day. The timing was important – 11 AM a time when ordinarily most of these guys would have been asleep in bed. But he did it and we are grateful.

Looking at this image which I know so well a number of thoughts strike me…

With the exception of Manchester-born Marian Mcpartland, Mary Lou Williams talking animatedly in the front row and singer Maxine Sullivan – they are all men. Less so now, but jazz continues to be a male-dominated profession. I hope to devote a future episode to Mary Lou.

At this time American jazz was and still remains to a degree an art form played and finessed by black people.

With very few exceptions at this ungodly hour all of these guys had dressed up for the occasions. Hats and ties were much in evidence. This was a time of sharp suits and sartorial elegance. Hard to imagine Lester Young without his pork pie hat. Pity Miles Davis couldn’t make the gig.

They all look happy to be there and at ease in each other’s company. I think this image truly represents the community of jazz at this time. Yes, it was a highly competitive and meritocratic culture with only the very best flourishing on the New York scene but these guys learnt from each other. Each generation from the giants of the previous generation. To this day Sonny Rollins is still eloquent about how much he owed to Coleman Hawkins

And most striking of all – probably the best known face in the crowd – the great bandleader Count Basie is sitting uncomfortably on the sidewalk surrounded by local kids.

And 63 years on only Rollins and Benny Golson from this group of jazz greats are still with us.

Image: Charlie Parker: Danny Silverstone Archive

In future episodes I’ll return to this picture and some of the great music these guys were playing close to this time.

And in a nod to the fact that jazz is a truly international music with deep roots in all 5 continents I leave you with another image “A great day in Hackney 2016” which I’ll return to on another occasion.

Image: A Great Day in Hackney: Danny Silverstone Archive

Notes on the episode playlist…

Moritat Sonny Rollins

Saxophone Colossus 1956

Rollinstenor: Sax

Max Roach: Drums

Doug Watkins: Base

Tommy Flanagan: Piano

Sonny’s breakthrough album – a mix of quirky standards, like Moritat, and originals. A good introduction to Sonny’s huge, unique sound and the astonishing creativity of his improvisations. He was 25 when he cut this album!

Count Basie Orchestra Double-O

The Atomic Basie 1958

Basie’s 3rd great band coming into its own in the 1950’s. This album sold huge numbers on release. Iconic arrangements by Neal Hefti. Basioe is seated next to local kids in the picture

Coleman Hawkins Love Song from Apache

Today And Now 1962

Hawkins: Tenor sax

Tommy Flanagan: Piano

Major Holley: Bass

Eddie Locke: Drums

Towards the end of his long career, Hawkins who set the standard for saxophone mastery with his iconic solo on “Body & Soul” in the mid-30’s playing a little known ballad with great tenderness and delicacy.

Thelonious Monk  Little Rootie Tootie

Live at Town Hall 1959

This album helped launch Monk into the consciousness of the wider listening public. Arranged by Hall Overton. After the individual solos, the whole band plays an orchestrated transcription of Monk’s trio solo of this tune from his earlier Blue Note release. The rehearsals for this performance were legendarily tense. The trio version was the first Monk tune that I heard, I can still sing the solo!

Horace Silver Senor Blues

Live at Newport: 1958

Horace had just emerged from the Jazz Messengers which he co-founded with Art Blakey-also pictured. Senor Blues crystalizes Horace’s writing  style and became an early and much played hit within his repertoire.

Horace: Piano

Junior Cook: Tenor

Louis Smith: Trumpet

Gene Taylor: Bass

Louis Hayes: Drums

Mary Lou Williams A -Fungus A -Mungus

Black Christ of the Andes 1964

Still, sadly under-rated Mary Lou had an astonishing career as a writer, big band arranger, teacher and performer. Impossible to pin down stylistically. Always ahead of the jazz curve

Add your details below to be notified when the next My Life in Jazz episode is released