[Portrait of Ray Nance, Aquarium, New York, N.Y., ca. Nov. 1946], William P. Gottlieb, photographer. (Music Division, )
By W. Royal Stokes
In the years between 1939 and 1948, William Gottlieb's cumbersome Speed Graphic press camera captured the elusive moments of what he called "a golden age" of jazz--the era of Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Mary Lou Williams, Eddie Condon, Charlie Parker, Nat King Cole. In shot after shot, he sought to expose the creative spirit behind the music: "I photographed Billie Holiday's face so that it suggested the anguish in her voice; I made sure to show the mutilation in guitarist Django Reinhardt's fingering hand, making it obvious how much he had to conquer to become the first great non-American jazz musician; I had Mel Tormé, the 'Velvet Fog,' sing through a cloud formed by dry ice."
Gottlieb's portraits of singers and musicians have illustrated more than 250 record albums and countless magazine and newspaper articles, and have been used in television documentaries and films. Last year, his images of Holiday, Mildred Bailey, and Jimmy Rushing reached an even wider audience when they were chosen for a series of U.S. postage stamps celebrating jazz singers. This past April, the Library of Congress acquired Gottlieb's collection of 1,500 negatives and original prints.
Before Gottlieb, jazz photography consisted mostly of rigidly posed pictures of musicians and groups. Of course, there were exceptions--some memorable studio portraits of the New Orleans and Chicago bands of Buddy Bolden and King Oliver. But the early photographers were not artists, and their names are long forgotten.
Along with his contemporaries Milt Hinton and the late Charles Peterson, Gottlieb set out to photograph musicians on location--performing in nightclubs and concert halls and at recording sessions, and sometimes in moments of relaxation backstage or in their dressing rooms. There are some revealingly candid moments in Gottlieb's collection: a smiling, flat-cheeked Dizzy Gillespie, a young and pensive Miles Davis, and Louis Armstrong with his handerchief. And, in the great tradition of the music these artists created, Gottlieb involved his subjects in a form of collective improvisation.
Unlike Peterson and Hinton, whose backgrounds as professional musicians (Peterson had been a banjo and guitar player, Hinton a bassist) gave them unrivaled access to players and a keen understanding of the jazz world, Gottlieb fell into jazz photography more or less by chance. A friend introduced him to the 78 rpm recordings of Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington in 1936 when he was laid up in bed for a month, recovering from trichinosis. Then 19, Gottlieb was soon hooked on the music and began contributing reviews of jazz to the monthly magazine he edited at Lehigh University. Two years later he was hired as an ad salesman at the Washington Post. Before long he was writing a weekly jazz column for the newspaper and hosting his own radio shows.
"I was at the center of the jazz scene," recalls Gottlieb, now 78. "It was an exhilarating experience. I was the city's 'Mr. Jazz' by the age of 23. Wow, Mom!"
Gottlieb spent four years in Washington writing newspaper articles and presenting radio shows. Although the city "wasn't one of the world's great jazz centers," he says, "there was plenty of excitement for me . . . . One wonderful week [about 1940], the Bob Crosby Orchestra--the leading Dixieland jazz standard-bearer--was playing the Earle, the big 'white' theater (Washington was still a segregated town), while at the same time the powerful, driving Count Basie group was at the Howard, the major Negro theater." Gottlieb succeeded in bringing some members of the Basie and Crosby bands together for an impromptu jam session "even though their jazz styles were at opposite extremes . . . . Somehow, the playing styles didn't clash. It was all simply glorious."
Gottlieb was struck by the "tremendous energy" of the jazz greats he encountered. He recalls an evening in 1940 when the ebullient Duke Ellington visited him at home. Twenty years Gottlieb's senior, Ellington was "bouncing around" until 3 a.m. when he left with a "woman draped on either arm."
The young writer realized that illustrating his reviews with photographs of such famous performers would win readers. But when a thrifty editor at the Post declined to pay a staff photographer to shoot them, Gottlieb bought his own press camera, taught himself how to use it, and even supplied his own film and flashbulbs. "After committing a couple of horrendous double exposures, and even shooting without film in my camera, I mastered the beast and . . . became a competent writer-photographer," Gottlieb recently related. "I know the musicians and their music quite well and . . . could hold off making the exposure until the right instant."
There was no pay for the photographs that began to accompany his weekly column--an irony Gottlieb now enjoys. It is his photos, after all, that have made him famous, while his writings are largely forgotten.
In 1943, Gottlieb was drafted and worked as a classifications officer in the Army Air Corps. Settling in New York after the war, he became a writer and editor at Down Beat and a contributor to Collier's, the Saturday Review, and the Record Changer. He continued to enhance his articles, but not his income, with photographs, but the pace was demanding.
"In 1948, I quit jazz, cold," recalls Gottlieb. "I had a wife and children, and the joys of staying out 'til 4 a.m. with musicians, even those who were my idols, had evaporated." He turned to work outside the jazz world, eventually founding his own educational filmstrip company.
Encouraged by renewed interest in jazz in the '70s, Gottlieb pulled his negatives out of the closet and selected 200 for a book, The Golden Age of Jazz. (A revised and expanded edition in duotone was released this past summer by Pomegranate Artbooks.) Its original publication in 1979 launched a third career of lectures and exhibitions both here and abroad, appearances at galleries and museums, and a cottage industry of postcards, T-shirts, and posters.
The single decade that Bill Gottlieb devoted to the jazz scene was immensely rich and varied. In the late '30s, the swing era was in high gear, but with World War II many of the big bands lost players to the armed services, and the few surviving bands began featuring singers instead of instrumental soloists: Frank Sinatra sang with Tommy Dorsey's orchestra and Anita O'Day with Gene Krupa's band. By the early 1940s the first sounds of modern jazz, combo bebop, were beginning to be heard at Minton's Playhouse in Harlem and at 52nd Street clubs like the Onyx and the Three Deuces. And since many of the older jazz masters were still active, Gottlieb even shot such pre-swing era figures as Bunk Johnson, Leadbelly, Chippie Hill, Louis Armstrong, Ethel Waters, Jack Teagarden, Sidney Bechet and Willie "the Lion" Smith.
"From the beginning, I took the pictures as a writer would," he explained two years ago. "I was not after just a 'good' photograph but, instead, one that would 'say something,' something that would augment the text."
Reproduced with permission from the September-October 1995 issue of Civilization magazine. All rights reserved.