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Jazz Day, the Making of a Famous Photograph

Picture Book

Orgill, Roxanne, Jazz Day, the Making of a Famous Photograph. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press, 2016.

“In 1958, Art Kane had a crazy idea.” Art Kane was a graphic designer who loved jazz music. The last photo he ever took was of a flag on top of a flagpole at the Bronx zoo when he was 12 years old. It was a terrible photo and he never took another one again.

That is, until he got the idea to photograph as many jazz musicians as he could gather in one place. He pitched the idea to Esquire magazine knowing that the publication was planning a special issue, “The Golden Age of Jazz.”

Kane wanted the photo shot in Harlem and found a brownstone, #17, on 125th Street between Fifth and Madison Avenues. The light on that part of the street would be just right and he could line up many jazz musicians in front of the large four-story building.

At Esquire’s request, the police department blocked off the street to traffic for four hours on Tuesday, August 12, 1958 but first, Kane had to find a camera. He borrowed a Contax D 35 millimeter and a Hasselblad 2 ¼ x 2 ¼ inch.

All jazz musicians received an invitation but Kane wouldn’t know who would show up until 10:00 a.m. that day. Jazz musicians were known night owls. But 58 musicians did show up one hot day in Harlem and posed for a famous photograph.


The photograph, Jazz Day, was like a jazz composition. Rather than mention all 58 musicians in the photo (including the one who wandered to the brownstone next door), the author selected a few and wrote a free verse poem to describe them and their music. The illustrations by Francis Valleja picked up the “jazzy” mood of the photograph, too. Neighborhood kids were in the photograph, lined up in front of the musicians or hanging out of apartment windows. The musicians posed informally. Count Basie sat on the sidewalk with the kids; the missing Duke Ellington’s was found on a tour of the Midwest and Kane caught Dizzy Gillespie with his tongue sticking out.

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