Published: Tuesday, August 31, 2004
Portraits from the Golden Age of Jazz: Photographs by William P. Gottlieb will introduce the fall exhibition season at the North Carolina Central University Art Museum, now until October 10, 2004. During the 1930s and 1940s, William Gottlieb photographed the contemporary jazz scene to illustrate his columns in the Washington Post and Downbeat magazine, capturing such jazz greats as Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Harry James, Thelonious Monk, and Billie Holiday.
In the exhibition, writer-photographer William Gottlieb presents a fond look back at the “Golden Age of Jazz,” the years from the late 1930s through the 1940s when, despite the Great Depression and World War II, enormous strides were made in musical achievement. During the first half of the era, big band jazz, mostly known as swing, reached its peak. During the second half, bop and other modern jazz forms developed while the pioneers of jazz – already legendary in their own time – continued to play the older styles.
About his photographs Gottlieb says, “With few exceptions, my jazz photographs, all taken on location instead of in studios, were made only to illustrate my articles. This supplemental function profoundly influenced my style: I consciously tried to take pictures that would augment my text; that would say something that would go beyond what I could do with just words. Ideally, I tried to capture a subject’s personality or inner qualities. I reached these elusive goals only occasionally, though sometimes very successfully, as with the shot of Billie Holiday that clearly shows the anguish in her voice.”
As a writer for the Washington Post, Down Beat and other periodicals, Gottlieb interviewed almost all the outstanding instrumentalists and singers of the time. He learned from Post photographers (who didn’t want to cover his late-night music stories on their own time) how to take his own pictures. Obviously an able student, Gottlieb created masterful images with a distinctive storytelling touch, capturing a very human side of these larger-than-life musical personalities.
Melodic improvisers Louis Armstrong, Lester Young, and Charlie Parker; composers Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk; pianists Willie “the Lion” Smith, Art Tatum, and Nat “King” Cole; vocalists Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and Frank Sinatra; these are among the many subjects of Gottlieb’s brilliant and incisive portraits included in the exhibition. In their wide diversity, they remind us of how rich that era was in originality and individualism – all thriving in the commercial milieu of American popular music. There is that anomalous giant (musically speaking) “Leadbelly,” the blues singer and ex-convict, here contrived by Gottlieb’s low angle and hard lighting to meet popular expectations of a menacing figure; Count Basie, the great leader of the swing era, a serene and reassuring presence in an often tumultuous profession, smiling from the keyboard at an unseen audience; Dizzy Gillespie, a publicist’s dream, who probably understood the business of music better than any other jazzman then, in a clownish pose under a lamppost on 52nd Street; an intriguing study of a dance-hall audience surrounding regally seated Kenton band singer June Christy; and a spellbound Miles Davis gazing up in total concentration at the older, well-established bop trumpeter Howard McGhee. These are among the sometimes poignant, sometimes amusing, yet always illuminating images of Gottlieb’s work with the stars of jazz’s most prolific era.
Exhibitions of Gottlieb’s work have appeared in nearly one hundred institutions throughout the world, from the Navio Museum in Osaka, Japan, to the Museum of Modern Art in Stockholm, Sweden. His photographs have appeared in books, magazines, and newspapers, as well as on posters, postcards, T-shirts, and even drinking mugs. And they have been the acknowledged basis for four portraits of jazz musicians appearing on U.S. commemorative postage stamps. It is with pride that, through the generosity of the Ira and Lenore S. Gershwin Fund, the Library of Congress now counts the original negatives of Gottlieb’s jazz photographs among its treasures, to be preserved permanently and made available for research.