Art Kane: A Great Day Frame by Frame

In a new book, Jonathan Kane tells the stories behind his father’s most famous photograph: Harlem 1958

Cover of Art Kane Harlem 1958
Cover of Art Kane Harlem 1958

Speaking of concept, the iconic “Great Day in Harlem” photo session was actually his grand idea. Do you know what he was thinking? What inspired him to do such a thing?

Word on the street for people in publishing and for people connected in New York at that time was that Esquire was planning this big special edition to celebrate jazz. It was going to be the “Golden Age of Jazz,” and it was going to come out in January of 1959. Art Kane at that time was a celebrated young art director who was really wanting to transition into photography. Being a bold and audacious character, he cooked up this idea that it would be amazing to have a group shot—a class portrait, as it were—of all the biggest names in jazz that they could get together. He said that it shouldn’t be in a studio … it should be outdoors. He came up with the idea that it would be in Harlem because Harlem is really where jazz took hold in New York City and was home to so many of the great jazz musicians, as well as some of the great clubs.

He pitched his idea to Harold Hayes and Robert Benton. They basically took a huge chance and said, “Yes, let’s do this.” At that point it became an incredible process of recruitment of the musicians. To the best of my understanding, it was a combination of phone calls to agents, record companies, and some notices at the Musician’s Union halls.  My guess is that the word of mouth was huge. It sort of spread from person to person.

Final shot for Harlem 1958 photo session (photo by Art Kane)

At that point, they scouted the location. They liked 126th Street because it was close to the subway stop and train stop at 125th and Park. For a couple of frames, [they] actually shot in front of another building, 52 E. 126th, a block away [the final photo was taken on the stoop of 17 E. 126th]. That’s fascinating to me. At some point, this whole group of people moved all the way across an avenue to a different location, which is kind of an amazing image on its own, [but] no one photographed that. The one they ended up with had beautiful tonal contrast to the façade. The architectural details were beautiful. It also had those big wide banisters on the stairwell for people to lean against or sit on. They picked this great location.

When it got to the day of the shoot, all they could do was show up and wait and see who would come. They really didn’t know. I think my dad has said in the past that he had hoped maybe they’d get 15 or 20 people. But then a few showed up and then some more and they kept on coming. By the time they were done there were famously 58, 57 of whom are in the photograph because Willie “The Lion” Smith had gotten tired and went and sat down on the stoop next door and is not actually in the famous frame. He missed out. But he was there.

Luckey Roberts and Willie The Lion Smith (photo by Art Kane)
Luckey Roberts and Willie “The Lion” Smith (photo by Art Kane)