"The Decisive Moment": The Metronome All-Stars, 1949

Article excerpt


Heralded as "the most famous photo in the history of jazz,"1 Art Kane's 1958 group portrait of fifty-seven of the leading musicians of the "golden age" of jazz has certainly attained iconic stature. The inspiration for Jean Bach's Oscarnominated documentary film, A Great Day in Harlem (1994), that single photographic frame, capturing a gathering of jazz figures both major and minor on the stoop and on the sidewalk in front of a brownstone on West 126th Street in Harlem, has morphed into a multipaned virtual window into a world unto itself, inviting viewers to reflect deeply on the music, the personalities, the livelihoods, the lifestyles of a vibrant subculture. Dramatizing the convergence, on an ordinary August morning in New York City, of both luminaries and lesser lights -Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Count Basic, Coleman Hawkins, and Lester Young at one end of the spectrum, and Bill Crump, Dickie Wells, Buster Bailey, and Miff Mole at the other-the combination of the film and its spin-off book of essays and reminiscences, The Great Jazz Day (1999), verifies engagingly the galvanizing agent of jazz in the lives of immortals and mere mortals alike.

Intrinsically, film and book also draw viewers into the story behind the photo shoot, the results of which appeared in Esquire in January 1959: the serendipity of Kane even receiving the assignment (his first ever); the challenge that he faced not just in assembling the musicians but in keeping them together for the four hours needed to complete the shoot (apparently only pianist Willie "The Lion" Smith strayed outside the angle of the camera's lens); and the related challenge of getting them agreeably positioned along the sidewalk and on the stoop. Clearly, Kane's photo supports the old adage that every picture tells a story ... or two.

But it also supports a corollary to that adagethat different kinds of pictures tell different kinds of stories -as Kane's perspective on the art, or the craft, of photographic portraiture may reflect as much on what his photo fails to register vis-à-vis jazz-as-subject as on what it actually records. Indeed, Kane's claim to photographic fame came long before Bach's filmic resurrection of "Four Decades of Jazz Musicians" (as Esquire referred to his photo); in fact, that "most famous photo" anticipates the work that would make him a legend in his own time during the 1960s - carefully posed shots of such emerging rock music stars as The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, and The Who. Admitting that his portrait of The Who draped in the Union Jack derives from Henri CartierBresson's well-known photo of a vagrant sleeping in Trafalgar Square on George VI's Coronation Day in 1937, Kane clearly practiced in these photos the philosophy that he once preached in a lecture: "Performance shots are a waste of time, they look like everyone else's. If you want to shoot a performer, then grab them, own them, you have to own people, then twist them into what you want to say about them" ("Art Kane: Biography").

In this respect, in presenting not a caughtin-the-act moment on stage or bandstand -the evocative stock-in-trade of most jazz photographers -but a staged moment, a manufactured occasion,2 Kane's "Four Decades of Jazz Musicians" differs radically from the expansive catalogue of enduring photographs registering the jazz world of the 1940s and 1950s. Including the work of William Gottlieb, William Claxton, Chuck Stewart, Lee Tanner, Dennis Stock, Ray Avery, Duncan Schiedt, Roy DeCarava, Herman Leonard, and Francis Woolf, these photographs typically aimed to capture not the static features of a calculated pose but the truly dynamic -the inherently ephemeral-nature of musicians utterly and unselfconsciously immersed in artistic creation. Many of them have entered the popular field of vision, achieving collectively the permanence of a public archive, a distinctive graphic complement to the richness of the music itself: Leonard's 1949 portrait of Ella Fitzgerald lost in song before an enraptured Duke Ellington and a mesmerized Benny Goodman at the Downbeat jazz club in New York; his photo of a smokeenshrouded Dexter Gordon at ease between solos in 1948; Gottlieb's 1948 headshot of Billie Holiday that, in his own estimation, "succeeded in capturing the beauty of her face and the pain in her voice" (Gottlieb, Golden Age 98); Tanner's close-up of Cootie Williams pinching breath into and notes out of his trumpet at Connolly's in Boston in 1959; Stock's image of Miles Davis performing m a halo of light at New York City's Birdland in 1958; and any number of Bluenote album covers by Woolf. …


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