“A Great Day In Harlem”: Remembering the iconic 1958 photo of legendary musicians

Sixty years ago this month, Esquire Magazine released its issue featuring what would become an iconic photo: 58 legendary jazz musicians gathered in front of a Harlem townhouse. Now, a new book reveals the story behind the historic image called “A Great Day In Harlem.”

Benny Golson is one of the great tenor sax players, a composer of jazz standards like “Killer Joe.” Golson was also a member of the elite group of musicians who gathered on that Harlem doorstep in 1958.
 
“I remember it like it was 24 hours ago,” Golson said about that day. “I remember everything about it.”
 
Golson, who’ll be 90 next week, had just moved to New York City to join Dizzy Gillespie’s band when he was invited to a photo shoot at 17 East 126th St. He didn’t know what he was in for. He was stunned.
 
“All my heroes and then I say to myself, ‘What am I doing here?'” Golson said. “Nobody knew who the heck Benny Golson was.”
 
Fifty-eight musicians showed up and the big picture would capture the giants of jazz: Count Basie sitting on the curb, and Dizzy Gillespie with Roy Eldridge, Thelonius Monk, Charles Mingus, Gerry Mulligan, Gene Krupa, Coleman Hawkins and Sonny Rollins.

Golson described the group as “the cream of the crop.” He is one of two surviving musicians from the photograph and the only one still performing.

Jonathan Kane’s father, Art Kane, was a hotshot young art director in 1958. He pitched the idea of the picture to Esquire Magazine for its “Golden Age of Jazz” issue.

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A Great Day In Harlem

Art Kane

 
“The concept here was just really to assemble as many great people as possible,” Kane said.
 
The new book, “Art Kane Harlem 1958” shows frame by frame how the musicians began to gather for the 10 a.m. call time.

“There was no money involved … no stylists around … what you really had were 58 brilliant artists who came for the love of their craft,” Kane said.
 
Kane’s vintage contact sheets show there were distractions as he tried to take the big picture such as a horse and buggy going by, street peddlers passing, kids on the curb, and the musicians themselves, who were all excited to see each other.
 
“I think famously my dad rolled up a New York Times into a megaphone shape and started imploring people to please move up into the steps,” Kane said.

But on that day, Benny Golson had no idea what a big deal the picture would become.
 
“None whatsoever … when the magazine came out I bought it of course,” Golson said. “And I turned to the picture and said, ‘boy, that’s a great picture.’ And like all magazines, you keep it for a while and I finally threw it in the trash.”

But as Kane explained, people fell in love with the photo instantly. Over time, its impact grew.

“It’s really taken on a life of its own,” he said.
 
Art Kane’s career as a photographer was launched that day. His future subjects would include Aretha Franklin, Janis Joplin and The Who.
 
Benny Golson became a composer and arranger, scoring music for TV shows, including “M*A*S*H,” “Mission Impossible” and “The Partridge Family.” But nothing was quite like the morning he spent on that Harlem doorstep.
 
“This was unforgettable. Magnum opus … I feel like it was a privilege.”
  

Post Author: Ian Poole

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