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If you lived and played jazz in New York, Harlem was a part of you and you were a part of it. It didn’t matter what style or era of jazz you were a part of—there were legends behind you and future giants ahead. Harlem was the home of jazz, the crucible for jazz, and the story of jazz fleshed out through its music, language, fashion, art, literature, and just about every aspect of culture throughout the early to mid-century.
They called it the Harlem renaissance. At the fore of the nation’s free black community were the jazz musicians, who experienced both international fame and domestic racial inequity. They worked their passions until they bled, and knew that their celebrity standing didn’t make them exempt to police brutality and hate crimes.
By the year 1958, Harlem had long established and upheld its reputation as the Cultural Capital of Black America. Esquire magazine was planning a huge issue on jazz music, and in the true spirit of jazz, one small-time freelancer improvised a contribution that would make history and capture the Harlem Renaissance forever.
The Great Eras of Jazz
Throughout the 1950s, Harlem housed so many eras of jazz musicians that pioneers born before the turn of the 20th century were playing just down the street from established, extremely talented musicians born as late as 1930. From that 30-year spread in musicians’ births, the swing era lived and died, the bebop movement surfaced, hot jazz and cool jazz had been played and retired in dance halls and night clubs.
Art Kane was a small-time magazine art director when he came up with the idea of bringing out as many jazz musicians as possible for a single photo shoot. The act had never been done before. Kane knew that he wanted it to be in Harlem, where these people lived and created. He understood that in order to capture the spirit of jazz as a driving cultural force, he would need to capture life in Harlem.
Kane scouted a location for the shoot and chose a random building on 126th Street between Madison and Fifth Avenues. In his mind, anyone could have lived in that building, and little did he know that his photograph would make that building famous. He put out the call the only way he possibly could have, shoving it through as many channels as he could and then waiting to see who would come.
The Nighthawks in Broad Daylight
Kane’s plan had one major hiccup for jazz musicians: call time was set at 10 o’clock in the morning. Though the time was ideal for photography, with ideal lighting and atmosphere, it was a challenge for photograph subjects who regularly worked until (and often well past) 4 o’clock in the morning.
The brutal call time threatened to limit or even prevent a large crowd from turning up. One musician is reported to have said that they didn’t realize that there were two 10 o’clocks in the same day. Yet the call to action was strong, and everyone realized that what Kane was suggesting had never been done before.
Jazz musicians are in the business of doing things that have never been done before. Spurred on by one another, and interested in the sheer novelty of the act, 57 prominent jazz musicians showed up for Kane’s photograph.
Bebop veterans Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk showed up and chatted with swing legends Count Basie and Gene Krupa. Young skyrocketing tenor saxophone players Sonny Rollins and Benny Golson showed up to stand alongside Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young, who pioneered the instrument in jazz.
Kane’s attempts to direct and structure the 57 musicians for the photograph fell mostly by the wayside. In the end, he did what any good jazz musician would have done. He incorporated the lives, the conversations, the energies, and the chaos of everything happening in front of him.
The result is a single, cohesive effort that has since become the most famous and historically celebrated portrait of jazz artists of all time.