Having emerged from roots in blues and ragtime (with many other cultural influences,) Jazz is known as “one of America’s original art forms.” William Gottlieb, by the age of 23, was at the center of the jazz scene, attending, writing about, and photographing some of the greatest jazz performers of all time. Born January 28, 1917 in Brooklyn, NY, he began his illustrious career as an ad salesman turned jazz columnist for the Washington Post, immersing himself in the musical genre. Gottlieb picked up a camera and began photographing musicians such as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Benny Goodman, Mary Lou Williams, and Nat King Cole to accompany his column during the “Golden Age of Jazz” which commenced in the 1930s and lasted throughout the 1940s. Out of necessity he taught himself the art of photography, and much like Brassaï, is now remembered more as a photographer than a journalist. Using a Speed Graphic press camera, referred to by Gottlieb as “the beast” for its bulky appearance and complicated mechanics, his photographs illustrate the artistry within a pivotal moment in music. He expertly captured the personalities and characteristics independent of each musical talent that defined jazz, along with the shadows, light, and atmospheric milieu crucial to its depiction.
William Gottlieb immortalized the young Frank Sinatra, one of the most influential musical artists of the 20th century, in 1947. Sinatra began his career during the swing era, singing lead for bandleaders Harry James and Tommy Dorsey. As Gottlieb described, he “sang with an impeccably swinging beat, and, when it was appropriate, he sang pure jazz.” A “master of projection…with his skillful use of microphones, his flawless diction, and his ability to impart the meaning of the lyrics in a song, he was able to make each individual in an auditorium of thousands feel as if [he] were singing just to him, or, especially, to her.” Gottlieb captured Sinatra behind the scenes during a recording at Columbia Records. One arm on the musical score, the other on his hip, eyes directed slightly to the side, hair slicked back, and tie undone, the photograph reflects Sinatra’s easy confidence and cool demeanor. Gottlieb had an innate talent for maintaining the mood and intimacy of a scene within his imagery.
As a documentary photographer, William Gottlieb’s photographs are a pictorial history of one of the most important musical genres in the United States. They invite viewers behind the scenes, and sometimes into the sensual, dimly lit clubs where some of the most accomplished jazz musicians have performed. His photographs have been exhibited in over 200 institutions worldwide and are contained in some of America’s most distinguished collections. Gottlieb’s images capture the soul of the musical genre and embody the unique personality of each artist that graced the stage in the great Jazz era.