Tuesday, March 22, 2011

"A Great Day in Harlem"

The most famous American jazz photograph is likely Art Kane’s “A Great Day in Harlem,” shot on August 12, 1958. Esquire's January 1959 issue was to be all jazz. Art Director, Robert Benton, wanted a striking photo. He got it when he hired Art Kane. Jean Bach’s 1994 documentary engages viewers through a series of conversations. Many of the musicians present, plus jazz followers, writers, the Esquire team, and even the kids on the curb, now in their fifties, take turns remembering the event.

How they arrived there sounds like a crapshoot. It’s suggested in the film that invitations were sent to many high profile jazz musicians living in the vicinity. Hearing them chat as they gathered, one gets the impression that no one knew who would show up. Marian McPartland reports in the film that Nat Hentoff went door to door asking invitees to come to 125th Street and Fifth at the appointed time and day “if you want your picture taken.” Maybe it was a bit of a daisy chain, one invited another. The word was out, but the question lingers, how open was the invitation?
Certainly Louis Armstrong was invited. Could there be any doubt? No. But recall that by 1958 many in jazz world were not Louis Armstrong admirers. Into the 1940s he was top dog, but things had shifted. Some allowed that he'd slid over into today's "Easy Listening” genre. Maybe he preferred not to be in the company he imagined would show up.
Louis Armstrong was not present. Neither can any of his band members, the All Stars, be found in the photograph. Louis’s neighbor and good friend, Milt Hinton, is there. He was bassist in the All Stars, but that was five years earlier. 

I did not expect to see him in “Great Day.” My reason? In six months of Louis Armstrong research at least one mention of “A Great Day in Harlem” would have popped up. This led me to reflect on other absentees. No Duke Ellington or Miles Davis or John Coltrane standing on the brownstone's steps on 126th Street between Fifth and Madison. Thelonius Monk was there; someone was in charge of getting him there. It’s entertaining to speculate why some came and others didn’t. Was the idea of this group shot great fun or untenable and intimidating? For those present it was old home week. But then that’s the appeal of reunions—you can’t believe you’ve agreed to party with people you won’t recognize and hardly knew back in the day. Then you have the time of your life.
The logical reason for Louis Armstrong’s absence was that he on the road. He could have been home but too tired to cross over to Manhattan for the photo op. Really, why would he want to go? The great raconteur was often utterly sick of his entertaining self, signing autographs, posing for pictures. If he wanted to see any of these people, he’d make his own arrangements. Or they’d stop by the house, Milt Hinton often did. How did he get around in New York City? Touring, he always had a driver pick him up at home. Did he ever drive anywhere? He’d opt out of the subway. Can you imagine the scene? He could take a cab, but that could also end up a mob scene. Recognizable and sought after by fans, he risked his hide whenever he walked down his front steps. In 1958 he was a captive of his fame.
Placing 1958 between the bookends of 1957 and 1959 may shed light on Louis’s choice to stay home, Corona, Queens, on August 12, 1958. In 1957 his stance against Faubus’s refusal to desegregate Little Rock, Arkansas schools garnered him immense attention. Today he is venerated for this response. Then several African American entertainers spoke out against Armstrong’s challenge to Faubus and scathing words on Eisenhower. Armstrong likely didn’t find much joy in 1957. Skip to 1959, a really bad year. On June 22, 1959 he suffered a severe heart attack in Spoleto, Italy. This put the kibosh on his carefree life style. Over and over 1957 and 1959 appear in the Armstrong canon. In 1958 nothing stands out. It was a blur, road trips and international tours from start to finish. Terry Teachout reports, “At one point in 1958 he played sixty-one college concerts in a row, afterward telling a reporter that ‘I’ve got more alma maters than anybody’.”[1] I don’t know if anyone’s tallied the percentage of Armstrong’s life spent on the road. A much-quoted statement is over 300 nights a year.
Most of my conversations these days revolve around Louis Armstrong. Every day is a hunt to interest people in taking part in Stop-Time on July 6 in downtown Saratoga Springs. I’ve become Ambassador for Satch. I spend more time calling and emailing strangers than I ever imagined possible. I have new respect for every parade and downtown arts festival. This event will not be allowed to just pop up on the streets. A permit must be granted. The trail to the permit taught me a bit about City Hall.
After several attempts to reach Kevin Veitch, Code Administrator, I stopped by his office. He happened to be in and not in the middle of something. He welcomed me to explain Stop-Time. Like most people I talk with, he offered his Armstrong memories, his dad playing Louis’s records on the record player. He asked, “Did Louis Armstrong every play Saratoga Springs?”
I didn’t know but I knew I had to know. One of the people on our committee suggested I visit the Saratoga Room in the Public Library. Today I met Teri Blasko, Local History Librarian. I arrived before public hours, but she opened the door and welcomed me to state my business. I went off on my Louis Armstrong—Stop-Time Celebration Event story. She suggested I come back at 2, opening hour. I arrived right at two and she presented me with the Saratogian news story, “Satchmo’s Trumpet Artistry Thrills Small Spa Crowd.” Louis Armstrong and the All Stars did play Saratoga. Not a huge surprise given that the horse races make Saratoga a popular tourist spot. Satchmo wasn’t here for racing season but in April. The jackpot was the date: April 24, 1958.
For days I’ve been thinking about 1958, where he was at various junctures that year, what his physical and mental states were. I’d already concluded what I’ve written—he was working hard and all the time, basically one-night stands. He was 57 (though he thought he was 58) and he was tired. After the concert, here are the flowers. He didn’t make “A Great Day in Harlem,” but four months previously he made “A Great Night for Saratoga.”
Flowers for Satchmo—Mars. Judy Wolff presents a bouquet of roses to Louis (Satchmo) Armstrong during the trumpet master's performance at Convention Hall last night. Looking on is Al Braim, chairman of the Chamber of commerce entertainment committee.

[1]Terry Teachout, Pops, New York, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009, 337.

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