“The Golden Age of Jazz,” seminal jazz photographs captured by William Gottlieb.
Photographs by William Gottlieb during the golden age of jazz are evidence of the rise of jazz as an invaluable American tradition. Gottlieb’s seminal photographs preserve these unrepeatable moments for the annals of history. Since the late 1930s, Gottlieb’s pictures of jazz musicians like Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, and Charlie Parker have been in circulation as some of the best photographs of modern jazz.
The pictures created an almost mythical record of these performers that shaped not only a sound but a cultural movement that would change the world.
“It is America’s music, born out of a million American negotiations…That could only have happened in an entirely new world. It is an improvisational art, making itself up as it goes along, just like the country that gave it birth. It rewards individual expression but demands selfless collaboration. It is forever changing but nearly always rooted in the blues. It has a rich tradition and its own rules, but it is brand new every night.” – Jazz: a film by Ken Burns
William Gottlieb was born in Brooklyn in 1917. He grew up in the NYC metro area and studied at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania. Gottlieb worked for the school newspaper, eventually becoming editor-in-chief while also starting a jazz column for the Washington Post. This column created one of the first newspaper features devoted to jazz. It acted as a platform for Gottlieb to develop his potential in photojournalism. Since the Post could not afford to pay for photos for Gottlieb’s jazz column, he decided to purchase a press camera and begin taking pictures himself. Since photography supplies were expensive, he moderated his pictures to a few shots per show. Gottlieb eventually crafted carefully composed portraits of the musicians he was covering. Because Gottlieb shot on his own accord, the paper decided he could keep his negatives.
This development began a collection of photographs that would become materials for promoting jazz. Most importantly, they became a crucial archive for the history of the golden age of jazz.
Gottlieb was present at the intersection of jazz’s growing impact on culture. He captured what would eventually be considered the golden age of jazz.
“He was there when Willie “The Lion” Smith performed at the Howard Theater in Washington. At Eddie Condon’s club, when a typical lineup included Pee Wee Russell, Max Kaminsky, and Wild Bill Davison. With Satchmo and the Duke, who towered above the rest of the jazz world. And along 52nd Street in New York, the liveliest spot in jazz during much of the Golden Age.” – The Golden Age of Jazz
Jazz has influenced the deepest reaches of American culture, extending from a language of music to a cultural phenomenon. Three of the greatest jazz legends, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, and Louis Armstrong were immortalized through Gottlieb’s camera lens. To catch them in their milieu and entranced in performance was a privilege not afforded to many photographers. Gottlieb had total respect for them, as well as their art form. For one art form to find a meeting place in another is only capable when there is an organic flow. Gottlieb was there with intelligence, skill, enthusiasm, and respect to record a living history.
Gottlieb eventually retired from photographing the jazz world and moved on to work for an educational film company. His pictures from the late ’30s to the ’40s encompass the golden years of jazz. Only a few of his signed photographs exist in the world, encapsulating a unique period in American music. A period that Gottlieb would capture with a passion and respect for the profoundly American art form of jazz.