In the 1940s, while most Americans were dealing with the ramifications
of the depression and World War II, William Gottlieb (who served as
an Army Air Corp photo officer) sought refuge in the jazz clubs of
New York City, where spirits soared and legends were created. Writing
articles on the jazz scene for various publications including The
Washington Post and Down Beat Magazine, Gottlieb started
photographing in order to illustrate his columns, creating a history
of the faces and people associated with jazz.
In 1948, Gottlieb put down his camera, abandoning the jazz circuit
to pursue other creative venues. For more than thirty years his negatives
remained in storage until he retired in 1979 and began the task of
printing his vast archive. Shortly thereafter, The Golden Age of
Jazz (now in its 12th printing) was published and Gottlieb, now
retired, was busier than ever. Considered by many to be the greatest
jazz photographer, Gottlieb's images of such legendary figures as
Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Dizzy Gillespie, Frank Sinatra, and
Charlie Parker have become icons in the history of jazz. Distinguished
by their storytelling qualities, his photographs transcend simple
documentation, capturing the drama, intensity and vitality attached
tot he jazz art form.
Among the hundreds of images in his archive, we see an angelic Billie
Holiday in profile, whose grace and pain radiates from her closed,
strained eyes; a dapper Frank Sinatra with his hand on his hips in
hypnotic concentration as the microphone stands inches from his mouth;
a backstage look at Duke Ellington in his dressing room surrounded
by his neckties, pressed shirts, baby powder and other sundries that
characterized his suave nature; a crooning Ella Fitzgerald being adored
by Dizzy Gillespie as her then boyfriend, Ray Brown, sits in the background
glaring at him; a puffy cheeked Louis Armstrong hamming for the camera.
Whether singing, playing instruments, conversing backstage, overacting
for the camera or in moments of contemplation and preparation, jazz's
greatest performers displayed an air of ease and comfort for Gottlieb's
camera. These are descriptive images which highlight the performers
in their heyday, during the golden age of jazz.
Among the numerous awards and accolades bestowed upon William Gottlieb
was the inclusion of more than two dozen of his images in Ken Burns's
documentary, Jazz. In 1995, The Library of Congress purchased
his original negatives, creating an archive for future generations
to learn about the heroes of jazz --America's greatest musical achievement.