William P. Gottlieb is God.
Ok. That's a little over the top. How about this... William P. Gottlieb is a god to anyone who's serious about jazz and photography. Ask jazz photographers and they'll tell you: He's the granddaddy of us all.
Just today the Library of Congress announced that a selection of images from its Gottlieb jazz photo collection are now available on Flickr Commons, a public photography archive. That's as good an excuse as any to show you some of my favorites.
William P. Gottlieb: Portrait of Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Ray Brown, Milt (Milton) Jackson, and Timmie Rosenkrantz, Downbeat, New York, N.Y., ca. Sept. 1947. (All photos are from the William P. Gottlieb Collection at the Library of Congress. Click directly on any of the photos to see much larger versions.)
Gottlieb wasn't the first person to photograph jazz musicians, but he was the man who made it an art form.
His career as a photographer -- roughly 1938 to 1948 -- coincided with what many people call "the Golden Age of Jazz," from the height of the swing era to the beginnings of bebop. Ask me, and I'll tell you that plenty of golden jazz is still being made in clubs and concert halls all over the world, by musicians young and old.
True enough, but it's hard to argue that jazz is popular music. In Gottlieb's day it was the popular music. In many ways, he was the right guy, in the right place, at the right time.
William P. Gottlieb: Portrait of Thelonious Monk, Minton's Playhouse, New York, N.Y., ca. Sept. 1947.
As a photographer, Gottlieb was essentially self-taught. He was already a jazz lover, when the Washington Post hired him, fresh out of college, to sell advertising. He convinced the paper's editors to allow him to write a weekly column on jazz. Although he initially worked with a staff photographer, he ended up having to illustrate the column himself. And that required learning, through much trial and error, how to use a camera -- a big, heavy, slow Speed Graphic and those new-fangled flash bulbs.
William P. Gottlieb: Portrait of Charlie Parker, Tommy Potter, Miles Davis, and Max Roach, Three Deuces, New York, N.Y., ca. Aug. 1947. (I dig the way that Miles is so clearly enjoying himself in this photo. Remember, you can make it much bigger by clicking directly on the image.)
Much about photography remains a mystery, and the most elusive aspect of all is the photographer's eye. Some people just naturally have it. Sure, everyone can learn to see better, but not everyone can learn to see well.
I've worked with young people who were using a camera for the first time, many time over the years. In every group, there are always one or two kids who start making good photos before you even show them the first thing about using a camera. Pretty soon, they're making very good photos.
William P. Gottlieb: Portrait of Django Reinhardt, Aquarium, New York, N.Y., ca. Nov. 1946.
Gottlieb was one of those naturals.
Don't get me wrong -- he worked hard to move from good to great. But he knew instinctively how to see.
William P. Gottlieb: Portrait of Frank Sinatra and Axel Stordahl, Liederkrantz Hall, New York, N.Y., ca. 1947.
After World War Two, he moved from Washington, DC, to New York, where he found himself working as an assistant editor at Downbeat, then, as now, the leading jazz magazine. That put him at the center of the jazz universe, at the very moment that bebop exploded on the scene.
Pop music was also changing. Vocalists, like Frank Sinatra, were replacing band leaders as the stars of the show.
William P. Gottlieb: Portrait of Milt (Milton) Jackson and Ray Brown, New York, N.Y., between 1946 and 1948.
That photo of Sinatra is one of the best anyone ever made of him. Nevertheless, Gottlieb's reputation rests on the photos that he made of the titans of jazz. Milt Jackson is certainly one of them.
William P. Gottlieb: Portrait of Sandy Siegelstein, Willie Wechsler, Micky Folus, Joe Shulman, Billy Exiner, Mario Rullo, Danny Polo, Lee Konitz, and Bill Bushing, Columbia Pictures studio, the making of Beautiful Doll, New York, N.Y., ca. Sept. 1947.
Nobody would claim that this is one of Gottlieb's better photos. It's a strictly work-a-day publicity shot. But I love it. I'm a French horn player, and it's a rare day that you see a French horn in a jazz setting. (Actually, there have been, and are, more than a few jazz French hornists. Someday, I'll blog about them.)
This is a photo of members of Claude Thornhill's band, with Sandy Siegelstein and Willie Wechler on French horn. Thornhill had the good sense to hire Gil Evans as his arranger. Evans, perhaps the greatest of all jazz arrangers, loved the sound of the French horn and, crucially, knew how to write for it. The results -- in Thornhill's band, in the arrangements Evans made for Miles Davis, and later in Evans' own band -- were magic.