William Gottlieb pictures from “the Golden Age of Jazz”

“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

As one of the most significant photographers at the epicenter of the golden age of jazz, William Gottlieb’s seminal photographs serve as evidence of the rise of jazz as an invaluable American tradition and preserves 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 the giants 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.

William Gottlieb was born in Brooklyn in 1917. He grew up in the NYC metro area and studied economics at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania. While in school, 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 and acted as a platform that allowed Gottlieb to develop his remarkable potential in photojournalism. Since the Washington 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. Gottlieb learned how to use a camera with the help of the Post’s staff, and since photography supplies were expensive, Gottlieb moderated his photos to a few shots per show, crafting carefully composed portraits of the musicians he was covering. Because Gottlieb shot on his own accord, the paper decided Gottlieb could keep his negatives. This development began a collection of photographs that would even be used for many materials promoting jazz, including posters and album covers, but that most importantly became a crucial archive for the history of jazz.

Gottlieb was present at the intersection of jazz’s growing impact on culture.

“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 in forms of expression. 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 adjacent to the DownBeat magazine offices from which he took his first jazz pictures. His pictures from the late 30’s to the 40’s encompass the golden years of jazz. Although there are only a limited number of his signed photographs in the world, they encapsulate a unique period in American music, one that Gottlieb would capture with a passion and respect for this profoundly American art form, jazz. These photographs exemplify the “coolness” and “hipness” that great jazz photography conveys in its unique capacity.


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