How a Harlem brownstone was immortalized when the living legends of jazz assembled there for an iconic photograph
BY SARAH GOODYEAR
FRIDAY, AUGUST 12, 2016
The year was 1999, and Noella Cotto was just looking for a place in Harlem to call her own. When she finally found the perfect place — a brownstone, in decent shape, at 17 E. 126th Street — she had no idea that the building had played a historic supporting role in American pop culture when, in 1958, 57 of the coolest cats in jazz assembled there to have their picture taken for a special issue of Esquire magazine. Cotto, who worked as a postal cop at the time, was unaware that the famous photo, titled “Harlem 1958,” was ubiquitous around the neighborhood, or that a generation of folks who’d grown up in the so-called Cultural Capital of Black America had seen the image so often, hanging in barber shops and bodegas, that they’d long since forgotten about it themselves. Nor did she realize that the photo had gotten another close-up only five years earlier in an Oscar-nominated documentary, “A Great Day in Harlem.”
The whole audacious idea was conceived by a man who none of the musicians knew, 33-year-old Art Kane, who had made a name for himself as a magazine art director but whose passion was photography. This was his first professional shooting assignment and, with it, he ended up making history almost by accident.
“He became aware that Esquire was planning a big issue on jazz,” says Jonathan Kane, Art’s son, a musician and photographer who also manages his late father’s photographic legacy (Art Kane died in 1995). “He cooked up the idea of doing a big portrait (with) all these musicians. Art pitched his crazy idea, and they said, Do it.” There was no question about where he would shoot. “Harlem was where the jazz scene came into being and coalesced,” Kane says. “It had to be in Harlem. And he wanted a place that reflected everyday life rather than a club. This could be a street where anybody could live.”
After scouting for a typical building on a typical block, Kane chose 126th St. between Fifth and Madison Aves. He wanted one that was convenient to the subway and what was then the New York Central Railroad (now Metro North), which had a station at 125th and Park. He put out the call for musicians through agents, record labels, union halls, clubs — pretty much any channel he could think of.
One of the musicians answering the call was Sonny Rollins, the brilliant tenor saxophonist who was 27 years old when the picture was shot and already among the period’s most acclaimed jazz artists. Rollins, who says he started playing music when he was 7 or 8 years old, had grown up in central Harlem, surrounded by the ferment of jazz. “All of the black musicians lived in Harlem, it was the only place you could live,” he says. “Harlem was the place. All my idols, like Fats Waller, all these people performed around where I went to school, at P.S. 89, at 135th Street and Lenox Avenue. So it was quite a community.”
“There were musicians from several eras of jazz. That picture depicted what a robust scene it was for jazz musicians in New York.”
— Sonny Rollins
When he heard about the photo shoot, he knew he had to be there. “I didn’t hesitate,” says Rollins, who is now 85 and, along with Benny Golson, one of only two surviving musicians in the photo. “Something like that had never been done, and the guys were just eager to do it. I certainly was eager to do it. They were all my compadres. It was great fun.”
They had fun even though the start time, in jazz terms, was brutal. Because he wanted to utilize the best light on the north side of the street, avoiding any shadows, Kane asked people to arrive by 10 a.m. — a tall order for artists who typically worked until 4 in the morning. In the 1994 documentary about the photograph, Steve Frankfurt, who was assisting Kane that day, put that early call time in perspective: “Somebody said they didn’t realize there were two 10 o’clocks in the same day.”
The nighthawks showed up anyway, dressed to the nines and ready for action. They came by subway and commuter train. They came by taxi and on foot. Among the greats who made the gig that morning were Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, Gene Krupa, Mary Lou Williams, Roy Eldridge, Milt Hinton and Lester Young. It was a crazy scene, made even more beautiful by the row of neighborhood kids who sat in a row along the curb alongside a jovial Count Basie. “There were musicians from several eras of jazz,” Rollins says. “I think that picture depicted what a robust scene it was for jazz musicians in New York.”
HISTORY IN THE MAKING The January 1959 issue of Esquire in which Art Kane’s photo originally appeared.
“A Great Day in Harlem” dives into the story behind the picture in detail, incorporating the priceless, joy-infused Super-8 footage that Mona Hinton, Milt’s wife, shot during the session. It shows the musicians milling about, greeting each other, telling stories, laughing — doing just about everything but paying attention to the photographer across the street, who implored them to come into formation through a megaphone improvised from a rolled-up newspaper.
More than three decades later, director Jean Bach sought out many of the then-surviving musicians to interview them about the picture, including Dizzy Gillespie, Art Blakey and Marian McPartland. “Living in New York, you saw everybody,” trumpeter Art Farmer says in the film. “Anyone there, you were liable to run into any of them any day.”
By the time Noela Cotto started searching for a home in Harlem, the neighborhood was perceived as pretty sketchy, and she encountered a variety of obstacles. People told her it wasn’t safe, an assertion she dismissed. They told her she wouldn’t be able to get a construction loan to fix up one of the many buildings that had fallen into disrepair; that was harder to argue with. She thought about buying a co-op, yet despite her steady job, she encountered problems when she talked to a real-estate agent about purchasing one at a new building just a short distance from where she lives now. “The lady was racist,” says Cotto, who is Puerto Rican. “ ‘You probably don’t qualify,’ she told me. That woman did everything she could to keep me from seeing a place.”
“Every time I think about those artists, what they had to go through…it’s great music.”
— Noella Cotto
That was just as well, as it turns out. Cotto ended up getting a tip from a different agent that the building at 17 E. 126th Street was available. It was in fair shape after a developer’s rudimentary renovation, and she was able to swing the price. (Cotto suspects the previous owner was also unaware of its heritage, or he certainly would have charged more.) Today, the building is probably worth six times what she paid for it. “You’re going to pay a million for a shell now,” Cotto says. “Everything is being taken up. I consider myself pretty fortunate.”
Cotto, now 67, has settled nicely into the house. She has three steady tenants, including her former partner on the postal beat, and she says the group feels like family: “We all look out for each other.”
Being a big jazz fan, Cotto could really appreciate the significance when she found out, not long after she closed the deal, that she was obtaining a piece of history. She made a point of listening to the music of every single person in the picture. She bought an original copy of the Esquire jazz issue on eBay. “Every time I think about those artists — what they had to go through,” she says. “It’s great music.”
“An aesthetic, a tradition, and an audience: these are the prerequisites for a Golden Age,” wrote John Clellon Holmes in an essay that accompanies the photograph in Esquire, “and jazz has achieved them now.” The world represented by those 57 men and women — a world of late-night clubs, of gents in suits and hats and ladies in gloves, of martinis and Lucky Strikes — was already vanishing in the rear-view mirror of popular culture. Harlem was changing, too, emptying out and deteriorating. But change has always been part of the place.
Back in 1958, the city was still a place where aspiring musicians could live on the cheap, sometimes in boarding houses with other rising talents. Scoville Brown, a saxophonist and clarinetist, reminisces in the film about living in a place like that, run by a guy named Pop Collins. “It was a notorious home for musicians where you could come, eat and sleep for a reasonable sum,” Brown says. “I think his dinners were 35 cents apiece, and they were outta sight.” The rooms, he says, went for about $8 or $9 a week.
These days, a one-bedroom apartment at 62 E. 126th, just a block from the spot where Art Kane wrangled all those genius jazz artists, goes for $1,900 a month. And in this rapidly gentrifying neighborhood, that’s a deal.
East Harlem — the area east of Fifth Avenue and north of 96th Street — is being touted in news stories and on real-estate blogs as one of the last “affordable” parts of Manhattan. Affordable, that is, if you’ve got plenty of money to spend. Earlier this year, the median price of a condo in Harlem was $640,000. That may be considerably less than the figure of $910,000 in Manhattan overall, but it’s still a lot of scratch.
An increase of 30% in home prices since 2010 means that ordinary working people are increasingly unlikely to afford property in Harlem. The same goes for artists in any medium — unless they’re celebrities like Neil Patrick Harris, who three years ago paid $3.6 million for a townhouse on Fifth Avenue between 125th and 126th, just around the corner from the jazz house. (He and his husband then renovated it at an unknown cost.)
“Certain things end up being bigger than the original intention. The photograph has become part of our cultural fabric.”
— Jonathan Kane
Fewer than half the people living in Harlem now are black, the first time that’s been true since the 1930s, when the Harlem Renaissance was in full swing and Langston Hughes lived one block up on 127th Street. Cotto says she welcomes the increasing racial diversity. The area was Italian and Irish once, she points out, before Latino and African-American people moved in, and it has never stopped shifting. She made a note of it recently when she was walking down 125th Street, where a Bed Bath & Beyond opened recently and a Whole Foods is under construction. “From Lenox to the end of the block, I counted 20 white people. It’s mixing up nicely. The Barrio used to be Puerto Rican,” she says, referring to the part of the neighborhood sometimes known as Spanish Harlem. “Now, it’s mostly Mexican. Everything is changing.” Still, she adds, “I do wish we had more Chinese- and pizza places.”
Cotto also enjoys the regular flow of tourists and jazz fans, from as far away as Japan, who come to see the place where the musical innovators stood. She has taken pains to keep the stairs exactly as they were in the original photograph. Some, like the group Women in Jazz, come to recreate the image that Art Kane engineered all those years ago. “I’ve met some really nice people,” she says.
TAKE THE 2/3 TRAIN The brownstone at 17 E. 126th Street today, with the tripod photographer Art Kane used when shooting “Harlem 1958.”
You can see the neighborhood’s ups and downs encapsulated in the most famous riff on Art Kane’s picture. In 1998, XXL magazine commissioned photographer Gordon Parks to shoot “A Great Day in Hip-Hop.” The event drew 177 figures from across the country, including Rakim, Slick Rick, Phife of A Tribe Called Quest, Black Thought of the Roots, Fab 5 Freddy, Busta Rhymes and Grandmaster Flash. Debbie Harry of Blondie was there, too. (Lauryn Hill, the story has it, arrived 10 minutes after the picture was taken.)
MORE FROM THE DAILY DIG
Let's go back to Archie Bunker's old block
Former gangbangers push to reduce gun violence on Brooklyn’s meanest streets
John Lennon's legendary plea for liberty
The swarm of hip-hop artists occupied not only the stoop of number 17, but also the ones on either side. Forty years after the original was taken, the most glaring difference on the street was the condition of number 17 itself: Cinder blocks filled the doorway at the top of the steps and one of the windows. The facade was marred with crude graffiti.
Today, the building looks much more as it did in 1958. One of Cotto’s tenants, an artist, repainted the house number on the glass in the doorway, exactly as it was then. And the brownstone remains a touchstone for people seeking something both ephemeral and timeless that briefly came into being that day. “Certain things that happen in this world end up being bigger than the original intention,” Jonathan Kane says. “(The photograph) has become part of our cultural fabric.”
In the documentary about Art Kane’s picture, writer Nat Hentoff cites a reason the music those men and women played endures: “It is the immediacy of what that person was thinking at that moment in time.”
In “Harlem 1958,” Kane caught a bit of that magic. Looking at it, you can feel the immediacy of the moment, of all those people thinking together. It was here. It was gone. It’s still happening. “Jazz is something real and something solid,” Rollins says. “It’s a positive force. Jazz will always survive.”