A Great Day in Harlem:  The Harlem 1958 Jazz Portrait Website

Inspired by recent commentary by our own AG about work he’s doing for jazz preservation, and remembering comments from a while back by BostonJoe and others interested in learning more about jazz, but perhaps intimidated by it all, I thought I’d offer a doorway for folks interested in exploring the history of jazz, the connections between musicians, the various styles.  So I started out with good old Google, and I ran across The Photo.

Oh, I’d seen it before, and vaguely seemed to remember an NPR piece, but here it was again, the centerpiece of a website designed to do exactly what I was hoping for:  provide an entrance for someone interested in exploring the history of jazz, learning who’s who before setting off for further explorations.

So what is that photo and who are the folks in it?

Art Kane attributed his famous photograph to being young and naïve.  In August 1958 he was hired by Esquire magazine to come up with a photo to open an article about jazz.  He figured he would contact every major jazz musician in New York to show up on 126th street in Harlem at 10am to take a group portrait.  Getting jazz musicians anywhere together at 10am seemed impossible, but to everyone’s surprise 57 musicians showed up.  It was Art Kane’s first professional photograph.

Who are the folks in the photograph?  If you go to the website you can click on the photo and enter a series of close-ups of parts of the photo, with each artist identified.  Not only are they identified, but you can find a mini-biography of the person as a jumping off point for further investigation.  There may be, depending on the artist, links to additional websites, or recommended albums (links to Amazon, where you can hear sound clips).

But the website isn’t all there is.  You can get the full multimedia experience.  There was a jazz documentary made in 1994 with the photo as a jumping off point (probably the source of the vague memory I have from NPR):

Jean Bach’s 1994 film, A Great Day In Harlemis one of the best documentaries about jazz music.  It is filled with anecdotes, history and clips of classic performances.  The film shows how jazz is a musical language that a network of artists developed together.  While individuals had iconic personalities (such as Charles Mingus or Thelonious Monk), everyone in the portrait performed and recorded with each other.

If you’re already a jazz fan this living history of the music is required viewing.  If you are new to jazz, the film is a great place to start learning. Get a copy of the DVD and then use the website to jump around to learn more.

The website also has helpful indices of the artists by name, by instrument, and by style.  So if you were only interested in bebop, you could find out who in the photo is a bebop artist and link directly to them.  Or if you’re a drummer, and want to learn about the drummers, you can approach it that way as well.

You can buy a poster of the photo to hang over the easy chair where you listen to jazz.

You can join their mailing list.

And there’s an interesting discussion you reach by a link in the lower left corner of the main page of the site.  The link is marked “iTunes versus Jazz Preservation” and opens to a discussion of how much of the historical documentation of jazz is lost by the ways in which music be being marketed on-line today.  When you get a tune from a file swapper you don’t expect documentation.  But when you buy music from a legitimate source, there is documentation – such as original liner notes, album art, etc. – that is easily available but not currently provided.  You get it when you buy the CD.  If on-line music purchasing is to be the wave of the future, then we need to have those historical resources somehow available through the new medium as well – and preserved for the future.  Go read the full essay, and post your thoughts here if you’re so inclined.  If you’re really motivated, there’s even easy click-on links to send a message to iTunes and other music sites.  Suggested wording for your message is even provided, LOL.

The link to discuss the article doesn’t seem to be working, but despite that tiny flaw this has got to be one of the most intuitively designed, user-friendly and interesting jazz-related websites I’ve run across.  Highly recommended, especially if you’re involved in music education!

Anyone else have any recommended websites or other resources for those wanting to learn more about jazz?  Or just want to tell me what you’re listening to this week?

Have a great weekend!