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[Detail] Louis Armstrong, Carnegie Hall, New York, N.Y., ca. Apr. 1947

Collection Overview

William P. Gottlieb: Photographs from the Golden Age of Jazz contains over 1600 photographs of celebrated jazz artists. The collection documents the jazz scene in New York City and Washington, D.C. from 1938 to 1948. Gottlieb was a jazz writer for the Washington Post and later a jazz writer-photographer at Down Beat magazine. During his career, Gottlieb took portraits of jazz legends including Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday, Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk. This online collection presents Gottlieb's photographs, annotated contact prints, selected published prints, and related articles from Down Beat magazine.

Special Features

There are currently no Special Features for this collection.

Historical Eras

These historical era(s) are best represented in the collection although they may not be all-encompassing.

  • The Great Depression and World War II, 1929-1945
  • Postwar United States, 1945-early 1970s

Related Collections and Exhibits

These collections and exhibits contain thematically-related primary and secondary sources. Also browse the Collection Finder for more related material on the American Memory Web site.

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Recommended additional sources of information.

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To find items in this collection, search by Keyword or browse by Subject Index that lists topics covered by the photographs.

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U.S. History


The William P. Gottlieb: Photographs from the Golden Age of Jazz collection features approximately 1,600 photographs taken by the writer and photographer William P. Gottlieb. Most of the photographs were shot between 1938 and 1948. Included among them are portraits of some of the greatest and best known musicians of the era—Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzie Gillespie, Billie Holiday, Stan Kenton, Charlie Parker, Mel Torme, and many more. The collection also includes articles from Down Beat magazine, for which Gottlieb worked after World War II, and images of Down Beat covers, as well as Gottlieb's own reflections on a select group of images. Permission from the Gottlieb estate is required through February 16, 2010 for commercial uses or uses exceeding fair use.

The collection provides an opportunity for students to examine in depth the art of photography, particularly portrait photography shot on location. It also provides a window into a particular piece of cultural history—the jazz scene in an era when jazz was at its peak and new forms of this particularly American art form were evolving. Further, close analysis of the documents in the collection reveals the connections jazz and issues related to race, gender, and the labor movement.

The collection can be searched by keyword or browsed by title or subject.

Jazz in the 1930s

Jazz is an American invention, developed by African-American musicians. It emerged in the early 1900s as its creators combined elements from West African musical traditions with elements from religious music and from other types of popular music based on European traditions. While some ingredients of jazz were borrowed from other musical genres, the music that emerged was unique, an art form of its own. A key element of jazz is improvisation, the adaptation of a melody or countermelody as a song is being performed. Thus, a song may be different every time it is played.

The new musical creation was dubbed jazz around 1915, although the exact origins of the term are not known. New Orleans is considered the birthplace of jazz, but Chicago, New York, and Kansas City soon emerged as important centers for jazz musicians.

By the 1930s, when William Gottlieb began taking the photographs that comprise the William P. Gottlieb: Photographs from the Golden Age of Jazz collection, swing had become the most popular form of jazz. Swing has been described as having an optimistic feeling—and the nation needed that optimism as the Great Depression showed no signs of relenting. People wanted to dance to the music played by large swing bands led by such musicians as Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Paul Whiteman, and Benny Goodman, and featuring such renowned soloists as Ella Fitzgerald. Swing bands played their music live on the radio, as well as in dance clubs, bars and restaurants, and concert halls.

Jazz groups and audiences of the time were often segregated. Although African-American musicians played at such venues as Roseland in New York City, black people were not allowed in the audience. Still, some musicians broke the color barrier. When renowned African-American vocalist Billie Holiday toured with white bandleader Artie Shaw, audiences were shocked. White bandleader Benny Goodman worked with such noted African-American instrumentalists as Teddy Wilson (piano), Lionel Hampton (vibes), and Charlie Christian (guitar).

Jazz in the 1940s

U.S. entry into World War II had a major impact on jazz. Many musicians were drafted or enlisted; to fill the musical void, a number of bands made up completely of women sprang up around the country. Some musicians took their bands overseas to entertain the troops, while still others sold war bonds and performed concerts to raise funds for the war. At the same time, curfews and high entertainment taxes closed many of the venues in which jazz musicians played; rubber and gas rations made it virtually impossible for musicians to tour by bus. A disagreement between the musicians' union and the record companies led to a two-year recording ban during the war.

While the war raged, prejudice flared at home. The integrated Savoy ballroom was closed to keep black servicemen off the dance floor. Fights provoked by prejudice were common. Segregation and discrimination continued after the war.

In the May 27, 1947, issue of Down Beat, William Gottlieb asked several musicians, "Has Southern Hospitality improved since the end of the war?" He received the following response from Cab Calloway: "Let me put it this way. This is one Cab that still won't drive south of the Mason Dixon line unless there's a sweet beat to the meter and no other fares handy."

Read the other responses to Gottlieb's question and consider these questions:

  • Summarize the responses from the five musicians interviewed by Gottlieb.
  • Which musicians avoided playing in the South? What were their reasons?
  • How did Duke Ellington avoid potential problems in the South? What do you think Norman Granz might have said to Ellington about his willingness to play the South?
  • What do these comments suggest about the state of race relations in the southern United States in the late 1940s?

These views on the South contrast sharply with the views expressed when Gottlieb asked several musicians the following question: "How have you liked working outside the USA?" Tyree Glenn responded:

Working overseas [in Europe] was a ball. People are very appreciative. They treat our music respectfully. Living is so pleasant, too. Except in the American zone of occupied Germany, Europeans showed no race prejudice. I'd have stayed there if it hadn't been so difficult getting money out to my family.

From "Down Beat magazine (July 16, 1947)"

  • What did jazz musicians of the 1940s enjoy about working in other countries?
  • What challenges did these musicians find in working overseas? Why might European nations have made sending money out of their countries difficult?

The 1940s also marked changes in jazz. Perhaps in reaction to the simpler and more composed swing, musicians developed bebop, a form of jazz not intended as accompaniment for dancing. Instead, the audience was expected to listen carefully to the complex melodies and harmonies accompanied by a new style of drumming. Groups playing bebop were smaller than the large swing orchestras. Such musicians as Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, and Charlie Parker were leaders in the evolution of bebop.

What exactly was bebop? William Gottlieb twice devoted his "Posin'" column in Down Beat to the question—in April 1947 and again in September of that year. Read the responses in both columns:

  • Based on these responses, what characteristics distinguish be-bop from swing-style jazz?
  • What reasons did critics of be-bop give for disliking the new approach? How typical do you think their attitude is to a change in an art form? Can you think of similar responses to the development of other new musical forms?

The geography of jazz also changed after the war. The continued growth of the movie industry and the emerging technology of television provided work for musicians, many of whom moved from Eastern and Midwestern cities to the West Coast. In the August 13, 1947, Down Beat, Gottlieb asked musicians in New York and Hollywood, "Will Hollywood replace New York as the nation's music center?" Perhaps not surprisingly, the respondents did not agree:

Andy Russell: All top musicians are migrating to the coast, including guys who have been in New York for years. When name bands break up, where do the men go? California. . . I suppose it's the easy, pleasant life and the lower cost of living that makes the coast attractive.

Skitch Henderson: New York is still IT. . . . As for popular music, except for Capitol records, there is no major institution in Hollywood. When someone like Sinatra really wants to be seen, he comes to the Waldorf. Me, too. It's the eastern spots that count.

From "Down Beat magazine (Aug. 13, 1947)"

  • What evidence did the musicians give to justify their answers to this question? Which pieces of evidence are most convincing to you in terms of whether Hollywood was replacing New York as the nation's music center?
  • What criteria would you use to decide if a city is a "music center" or an important center of jazz music? Which cities would meet your criteria?

Although "girl bands" formed when male musicians were serving in the military during World War II, women's role in jazz over the course of the period covered in the collection was somewhat limited. Women generally were vocalists or played instruments considered more feminine, such as the piano or harp. William Gottlieb revealed something of the attitudes of the time when he reviewed a performance by the musician Dardanelle:

Watching Dardanelle brings [Lionel] Hampton to mind in more ways than vibraphone playing. Mostly it's the mutual versatility of the pair . . . leading a unit, singing, playing piano and vibes. . . . Unfortunately, this rushing about from one instrument to another, directing musicians, singing to the crowd and so forth is not as becoming to a delicate young girl as it is to a muscular, sweating male. The frenzy is incongruous to Dardanelle while it's a spectacular selling point for Hamp.

From "Down Beat magazine (June 17, 1946)"

When asked if she would want her children to become musicians, Dardanelle responded:

It's a vicious racket. I don't mean the part of being a girl in a man's business. Boy or girl, you've got to play piano with one hand and either throw or ward off baseball bats with the other. I'd like my future children to know music. It's a great thing. But when you make it your business, the joy of music flies off.

From "Down Beat magazine (Feb. 26, 1947)"

What do you conclude about attitudes toward women in jazz from these two quotations? Find more evidence in the collection to support your conclusion.

Critical Thinking

Chronological Thinking: Creating Timelines

Every individual has a personal timeline—the chronology of events in that person's life. That individual timeline is inextricably linked with the larger events of history. Events in history affect the individual's life, for instance.

Draw a timeline of the years from 1917-2006 (William P. Gottlieb's life span). Use William P. Gottlieb's Life and Work: A Brief Biography Based on Oral Histories to enter at least eight important events in Gottlieb's life on the timeline. Using another color ink, add at least five historical events that you think affected Gottlieb's life; these may include major political events or events in the history of technology or culture. You will be able to identify several events from the reading, but you may have to form hypotheses about other events.

What does examining the completed timeline tell you about the relationship between individual lives and events on a larger scale? Do you think a similar timeline for one of the jazz artists pictured in the collection would show similar relationships with larger events? What about a personal timeline for someone in your family who lived in the same time period? Try making a personal timeline for yourself: What events in contemporary U.S. history have affected you?

Historical Comprehension: Using Visual Data

Photographs can be valuable historical sources. However, they must be carefully studied and analyzed, just as any other primary source would be analyzed. Use the tips below to analyze this photograph of a jazz audience in 1948.

In analyzing a photograph, it is helpful first to observe the photograph without drawing any conclusions. For example, you might ask such questions as:

  • When was the photograph taken?
  • Where was the photograph taken? What was the significance of this location?
  • Who is in the photograph? What is the relationship of the various people pictured?
  • What objects are shown in the photograph? What is the significance of these objects?
  • Why was the photograph taken?
  • What choices did the photographer make about posing, grouping, lighting, where the photographer was positioned in relation to the subject? How do the photographer's choices influence what the viewer sees in the photograph?

Next, note your personal reactions to the photograph, anchoring your subjective response in something seen in the photograph:

  • How does looking at the photograph make you feel? How do the photographer's choices influence your response to the photograph?
  • What associations do you have with the setting of the photograph or the people and objects portrayed?

Next, place the photograph in a larger historical context. What do you know about the period in which the photograph was taken or about the event or people depicted? What does this photograph add to your understanding of the period, event, or people?

Finally, consider what you can conclude from your analysis of the photograph. For example, what can you conclude about the jazz scene, jazz audiences, or life in 1948? Use the same process to analyze any photograph from the collection that interests you.

Historical Analysis and Interpretation: Formulating Questions to Focus Inquiry

The William P. Gottlieb: Photographs from the Golden Age of Jazz collection includes photographs taken at more than 70 venues, from such well-known performance venues as Carnegie Hall and Radio City Music Hall to clubs like Stuyvesant Casino and the Three Deuces to radio stations and the Turkish Embassy in Washington, D.C.

Choose one of these venues (use the Browse by Venue feature). Before you look at the photographs from the venue, formulate three questions to focus your inquiry. For example, you might ask: Why were jazz musicians performing at this venue? After you have created your list of questions, analyze the photographs taken at the venue. You may need to look at print documents in the collection to find answers to your questions. For example, William P. Gottlieb's Life and Work: A Brief Biography Based on Oral Histories provides information about why the Turkish Embassy was an important venue in jazz history.

  • How helpful was it to have questions to focus your inquiry?
  • Did having questions to focus your inquiry limit you in any way? Explain your answer.

Historical Research: Researching the Taft-Hartley Bill

Several documents in the William P. Gottlieb: Photographs from the Golden Age of Jazz collection mention the role of unions in the music industry in the period covered in the collection (1938-1948). In one of his "Posin'" columns for Down Beat magazine, William Gottlieb asked several musicians and a lawyer: "How will the recent legislative setbacks in Washington (Taft-Hartley bill, Lea act, Form B reversal) affect the working musician in the near future?" The attorney, Chubby Goldfarb, spoke in ominous terms:

Even a cursory study of the Taft-Hartley bill indicates this law may have far reaching and unsuspected complications. The musician, just as any other citizen, must of necessity be directly affected. This legislation coupled with similar legislative trends is the war cry of reactionary anti-labor forces. The musician must band together with his various union brethren for the preservation of his individual rights and for the actual survival of our great democracy.

From "Down Beat magazine (July 30, 1947)"

Research the Taft-Hartley bill. Why did Chubby Goldfarb call it the "war cry of reactionary anti-labor forces"? What does your research show about how the bill affected musicians? Were Goldfarb's words about the survival of our democracy justified? Why or why not?

Historical Issue Analysis and Decision Making: Designing a Curriculum for Young Musicians

In the July 2, 1947, issue of Down Beat, William Gottlieb wrote an article about what he said was the only school in the country with the primary goal of training working musicians.

  • Why would the editors of Down Beat include an article on a high school music program?
  • If you were designing a high school program for students who want to become working musicians, what would you include in the program? For example, how many classes a day would be devoted to the traditional curriculum (English, foreign language, math, science, and social studies) and how many would be devoted to music classes? What kinds of classes would be included in the music program?
  • Read Gottlieb's article on the Metropolitan Vocational High School program. According to Gottlieb, why did the school decide to start a music program in 1940? Do you think this was a good response to the problem identified by the school's principal? Why or why not?
  • How does the program described in the article compare to the one you outlined? Do you think the school made sound decisions about the curriculum? Explain your answer.

Arts & Humanities

Portrait Photography: Capturing Character

A portrait is a painted or photographic likeness of a person. Some portraits show only the person's face, but others show part or all of the person's body. A good portrait not only captures the person's appearance but also conveys something about his/her character or personality. Lighting, the person's pose and where their gaze is directed, props, and backgrounds are some of the ways in which a photographer can convey character.

Gottlieb faced a special challenge because many of his portrait photographs were not posed—they were candid, taken in the course of the musicians’ normal activity. He identified the following portrait of the singer Billie Holiday as one in which he had captured the subject’s character or personality especially well.

Examine the photograph carefully.

  • What adjectives would you use to describe the portrayal of Billie Holiday?
  • What emotions does the photo provoke in you?
  • What features of the photo convey Holiday’s character? What features evoke an emotional response? Consider such factors as the lighting, the background, where the photographer was positioned when he took the photo, and how much of Holiday’s body is shown in the photo.

Listen to Gottlieb’s comments on the photograph. How do his comments deepen your understanding of Holiday’s personality? Of the photograph itself?

Different photographs of the same person can convey different aspects of the individual's personality or character. Study the following photographs of Leonard Bernstein. What different aspects of his character do the photographs convey? How did Gottlieb capture these different aspects of Bernstein?

  • Portrait of Leonard Bernstein, Carnegie Hall, New York, N.Y., between 1946 and 1948
  • Portrait of Leonard Bernstein in his apartment, New York, N.Y., between 1946 and 1948
  • Portrait of Leonard Bernstein in his apartment, New York, N.Y., between 1946 and 1948

Portrait Photography: Props

In photographing musicians, an instrument is an obvious prop that can help explain something about the subject, frame the photo, or add an interesting or humorous perspective. In the following photographs, Gottlieb has used a harp in three different ways. How would you describe his use of the harp in each photo? In which photo do you think Gottlieb uses the harp most effectively? Explain your choice.

Gottlieb shot a series of photographs showing musicians in their dressing rooms. Think about why a dressing room might be a good setting for a photograph. Then choose several of the photographs from the series listed below. Note as many details as you can.

What can you learn about each subject by examining the items in their dressing room? What else about the dressing room makes it an effective setting for a portrait?

Listen to William Gottlieb's comments on the dressing room series. According to Gottlieb, how did the mirrors help him achieve the effect he wanted? How did he use details in the photograph to show differences in the personalities of Duke Ellington and Glenn Gray?

Framing and Cropping Photographs

As suggested in discussing props, one aspect of composing a photo is framing—deciding what details should be included in the photograph. Framing includes deciding how much background or foreground to show in the photograph and determining how close to get to the subject. Framing is more challenging in candid photos than posed photos because the photographer has less control over the surroundings. Another aspect of framing is deciding whether to make the shot horizontal or vertical. Gottlieb preferred vertical photos because they parallel the human body. However, when photographs appear in print, they cannot always be vertical.

To make a photograph fit the space available, to make a photograph more visually pleasing, or to keep the viewer's focus on certain elements of the picture, the photographer or editor may crop the photograph. Cropping changes the framing by cutting out some portions of the photograph. Framing and cropping can both have powerful effects on the meaning a viewer takes from a photograph.

Study the picture of Charlie Parker (on saxophone) and Tommy Potter (on bass). Charlie Parker, the more famous of these two musicians, struggled with addictions throughout his life. Given Parker's greater fame, why do you think Gottlieb composed the photo as he did? Listen to Gottlieb's reflections on this photograph and look at the cropped version of the photo that appeared in Down Beat.

  • How do Tommy Potter's face and bass provide an effective frame for Charlie Parker?
  • How did Gottlieb describe Parker? To what extent do you think the photograph conveys what Gottlieb hoped it would about Parker?
  • Is the cropped image more or less effective than the original photograph? Explain your answer.

Print out a copy of this photograph of Ella Fitzgerald and Dizzy Gillespie.

  • What problems do you see with the framing of the picture?
  • If you were using the photograph, where would you want viewers to focus?
  • What are the most visually appealing portions of the photograph?
  • Imagine that you are a magazine editor who is going to use the photograph. You have a space about 3 inches wide x 2 inches high. How would you crop the photograph? (Use pieces of white paper to block out the parts of the photograph to be cropped.) Compare your cropping with the cropping used in Down Beat magazine. How similar are the two cropped photos? Which do you find more appealing? How does each focus the viewer on people or objects?

Gottlieb took a series of posed photographs of Doris Day and Kitty Kallen in Central Park. Composing these photographs offered a special challenge because the setting offered two horizons (strong horizontal lines)—one created by the ground, the other by the New York skyline. Many photographers follow the Rule of Thirds in composition. Photographers imagine a tic-tac-toe grid placed over the image and try to place the subject at one of the points where lines intersect. If there is a horizon—whether an actual horizon where land meets sky or an artificial horizon created by a strong horizontal line such as a road—in the picture, it should be located closer to one of the horizontal lines of the grid than to the center of the picture.

Use the full search to find the series of photos of Day and Kallen.

  • To what extent did Gottlieb adhere to the Rule of Thirds in placing the horizon in these photos? In placing the subjects in these photos?
  • How did he use trees and buildings to frame the photos?
  • Choose your favorite photograph from the group. How would you crop the photo to make it even more visually appealing? How would you use the Rule of Thirds in cropping the photograph?

Representing Musical Style Through Special Effects

Today, technology makes virtually any special effect achievable. When William Gottlieb was creating his photographs, however, special effects took more ingenuity. The challenges did not stop Gottlieb from trying to create effects that would help represent the music being created by the people he photographed. Study the photograph of Stan Kenton and Buddy Childers. How do you think he achieved the effect? What do you think Gottlieb was trying to suggest about the music being created by Kenton and Childers?

Now listen to Gottlieb's commentary. How accurate were your hypotheses? Do you think Gottlieb was successful in creating the effect he wanted?

Look at the portraits of Mel Torme and Conte Candoli. What do you think Gottlieb was trying to convey about the music of these artists?

Pick one of your favorite musicians or musical groups. How could you convey something about their music through a special effect, using only the tools available in 1948?

Graphic Design

William Gottlieb's photographs have been used by graphic designers to create various kinds of visuals, including covers for the magazine Down Beat, stamps, album covers, and more. A number of Down Beat covers are included in the collection; they are accessible from the list of Down Beat Magazine Articles.

Examine the five covers listed below and develop a detailed description of the overall design of the covers. For example, identify all the elements of the covers and describe how they are arranged. Look at how color and typography are used. Try to find common traits among the photographs used. Consider differences among the covers.

  • "Double-header on the Cover," Down Beat 13, no. 9 (Apr. 22, 1946)
  • "Buddy Morrow on the Cover," Down Beat 13, no. 19 (Sept. 9, 1946)
  • "Joe Mooney on the Cover," Down Beat 13, no. 21 (Oct. 7, 1946)
  • "Duke & Group on the Cover," Down Beat 13, no. 23 (Nov. 4, 1946)
  • "Spring Maids on the Cover," Down Beat 14, no. 8 (Apr. 9, 1947)

Based on the description you have developed, create a design for a Down Beat cover. The theme of the issue, to be published in late 1948, is "New Jazz Sounds." What photograph would you choose to use on the cover? Explain your choice.

Gottlieb's photographs were also used as source materials for four U.S. postage stamps honoring jazz greats. Analyze these stamps using the same process you used in looking at the covers. Based on your design description, sketch stamps honoring Duke Ellington and Thelonius Monk. What photographs would you choose to serve as the basis for the stamps? Explain your choices.

Writing Style

Six arrangers with piece of modern art

Portrait of Ralph Burns, Edwin A. Finckel, George Handy, Neal Hefti, Johnny Richards, and Eddie Sauter, Museum of Modern Art, New York, N.Y., ca. Mar. 1947. Do you find this image "too comical"? How did Gottlieb solve the problem of the museum's response to his photographs?

Magazines intended for a specialized audience often have a writing style designed to appeal to that audience. Writing style refers to the writer's tone, the words used, and the way the words are combined into sentences (syntax). The William P. Gottlieb: Photographs from the Golden Age of Jazz collection includes a number of articles from Down Beat magazine, a specialized publication for jazz musicians and fans.

In the March 26, 1947, issue, William Gottlieb wrote an article about his attempts to photograph several jazz arrangers with works of modern art for the issue's cover. The article began:

How crazy can you get? Taking pictures of six jazz musicians, when it involves making appointments in advance? Having to take the shot to please the stuffy officials of a holier-than-everything museum?

In other words, the current cover was some headache.

From "Six Arrangers Examine Modern Art," Down Beat magazine (Mar. 26, 1947)

Read the entire article and consider the following questions:

  • How would you describe the tone of the piece? What attitude toward art-as-represented-in-museums does Gottlieb convey? How does he make that attitude plain? What attitude does he convey about jazz?
  • How would you describe the language Gottlieb used? Note places where the language used changed. What was Gottlieb's purpose in making this change?
  • How would you describe the syntax? Are sentences simple or complex? How does Gottlieb use incomplete sentences? How are questions used in the piece? What is the overall effect of Gottlieb's syntax?
  • Why might this writing style be appropriate for a jazz magazine?