In 1958 Art Kane was a successful art director who had dabbled in professional photography and was itching to make it his full-time profession. Knowing that Esquire magazine was planning a special issue on jazz, Kane made an audacious proposal to the magazine’s then-editor Harold Hayes and art director Robert Benton: to photograph a collection of prominent jazz musicians on location in Harlem. After getting the green light for the session, the nascent photographer was faced with the daunting task of shooting not 15 or so musicians, as he had expected, but 58 (or, as it turned out, 57). The result was the iconic and often-imitated photograph known familiarly as “A Great Day in Harlem,” the same name as Jean Bach’s 1994 documentary about the photograph, the photographer, and the musicians. Although Kane created many well-known photographs—including the Who huddled under a British flag, Jefferson Airplane in space-age glass cubes, and Bob Dylan crouched in a corner glaring at the camera—it was this photograph of many of jazz’s greatest players gathered on the stoop of a Harlem brownstone that would resonate most of all.
JazzTimes spoke with Kane’s son Jonathan, who, on the 60th anniversary of the photo’s original publication, has produced a new book, Art Kane Harlem 1958, published by Guido Harari and Wall of Sound Editions, documenting that session as well as other photos and sessions tied to the jazz essay in Esquire. The sumptuous volume includes forewords by Quincy Jones and Benny Golson (the last surviving person in the photo other than Sonny Rollins), as well as commentary by father and son. Numerous outtakes from the historic photo session shed light on what was indeed a great day for Kane, the musicians and jazz history. –Lee Mergner