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September 5, 2013 / robinswood

A Great Day in Harlem


With the August 20/13 death of jazz pianist Marian McPartland, there is one more blank spot in “A Great Day in Harlem,” Art Kane’s iconic 1958 photograph of a gathering of jazz giants on the steps of a Harlem apartment building. Kane had put out the call for musicians to meet in Harlem, where – accompanied by a bunch of local kids – they posed for a photograph that caught a glimpse of an era. In 1996 Life magazine organized a second take of Kane’s original, for which ten of the surviving thirteen musicians took up their original places. Also shown in the Life photo is Taft Jordan Jr., the boy sitting next to Count Basie in the original, who had accompanied his musician father to the original photo session.

harlem steps 2

It makes for a pretty poignant contrast, and now seventeen years later there are even more open spaces on the staircase. With the recent deaths of McPartland, Mulgrew Miller (May 29), Cedar Walton (Aug 19), and  jazz critic Albert Murray (Aug 18), only Sonny Rollins, Horace Silver, Benny Golson, and Taft Jordan Jr. survive.

The building at 17 East 126th Street was looking pretty rugged in 1996, but I know from walking through that neighbourhood it is now looking considerably better. Some might even say that it has “gentrified,” though I suspect it might be more accurate to say that this stretch of Harlem has stabilized and is beginning to again become a liveable and vibrant place to be. The  jazz scene, too, has so many signs of vibrancy these days. As a generation of giants dies out, their legacy is carried forward in new and often surprising ways by those who learned from them.

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You can access a really cool interactive version of the original photograph by clicking here.


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