An Archive of Iconic Photos from the Golden Age of Jazz: William Gottlieb’s Portraits of Dizzy, Thelonious, Billie, Satchmo & More

If you’ve seen the most famous pho­tographs of Bil­lie Hol­i­day, Dizzy Gille­spie, Thelo­nious Monk, Frank Sina­tra, Djan­go Rein­hardt, or near­ly any oth­er jazz leg­end from the mid-20th cen­tu­ry, you’ve seen the work of William P. Got­tlieb. His pho­tos have graced many a clas­sic album cov­er, mag­a­zine spread, and poster. “Between 1938 and 1948,” writes Maria Popo­va, Got­tlieb “doc­u­ment­ed the jazz scene in New York City and Wash­ing­ton, D.C., and cre­at­ed what even­tu­al­ly became some of history’s most icon­ic por­traits of jazz greats.” He ini­tial­ly did so as a self-taught ama­teur, a jazz colum­nist whose pho­tog­ra­phy was “an after­thought,” notes Gottlieb’s 2006 Wash­ing­ton Post obit­u­ary,” mere visu­al accom­pa­ni­ment to his reg­u­lar work.”

As Got­tlieb once told The New York Times, “I got into pho­tog­ra­phy because The Post was stingy and wouldn’t pay pho­tog­ra­phers to cov­er my 11 o’clock con­certs.” But he devel­oped an unde­ni­ably keen eye for per­for­mance.

What’s more, his work is deeply informed by affec­tion and empa­thy. Got­tlieb was an artist who had warm rela­tion­ships with his sub­jects. He took the pho­to at the top, per­haps the most famous image of Bil­lie Hol­i­day, in 1947, when the singer “was at her peak,” he wrote, “musi­cal­ly and physically”—two years clean and sober after her time in a fed­er­al prison.

“Regret­tably,” he writes, “Bil­lie regressed.” Got­tlieb tells the heart­break­ing sto­ry of the last time he went to see her. The “audi­ence wait­ed… and wait­ed.” The pho­tog­ra­ph­er, “play­ing a hunch,” went back­stage to find her “pret­ty much ‘out of it.’”

I helped her fin­ish dress­ing, then led her to the micro­phone. She looked hor­ri­ble. She sound­ed worse. I replaced my note­book in my pock­et, put a lens cap on my cam­era, and walked away, choos­ing to remem­ber this remark­able woman as she once was.

Most of Gottlieb’s sto­ries are not near­ly so trag­ic. Take his last run-in with Louis Arm­strong, at their den­tist office’s wait­ing room. “After small talk,” he wrote, “Satch­mo looked me over, decid­ing I, too, had been gain­ing weight. He reached into his jack­et pock­et, pulled out a print­ed diet (that he kept for friends-in-need), and hand­ed me a copy. ‘Pops,’ he said, ‘try this.’ I quick­ly not­ed that it fea­tured Plu­to Water [a lax­a­tive]. But I thanked him, any­way.”

Got­tlieb retired from pho­tog­ra­phy and jazz writ­ing in the fifties and made a career as a children’s book author and edu­ca­tion­al film pro­duc­er. In 1979, he pub­lished 219 of his best pho­tographs in a book called The Gold­en Age of Jazz, and in 2010, much of Gottlieb’s work entered the pub­lic domain, accord­ing to The Library of Con­gress (LOC). You can see hun­dreds of his photographs—famous images like those of Sarah Vaugh­an, fur­ther up, Thelo­nious Monk, above, Bud­dy Rich, below, and so many more—at the Library of Congress’s online William P. Got­tlieb Col­lec­tion. The LOC describes the col­lec­tion thus:

The online col­lec­tion pro­vides access to dig­i­tal images of all six­teen hun­dred neg­a­tives and trans­paren­cies, approx­i­mate­ly one hun­dred anno­tat­ed con­tact prints, and over two hun­dred select­ed pho­to­graph­ic prints that show Got­tlieb’s crop­ping, burn­ing, and dodg­ing pref­er­ences. One can fol­low the artist’s work process by exam­in­ing first a raw neg­a­tive, then an anno­tat­ed con­tact print, and final­ly a fin­ished, pub­lished prod­uct. The Web site also includes dig­i­tal images of Down Beat mag­a­zine arti­cles in which Got­tlieb’s pho­tographs were first pub­lished. Oth­er spe­cial fea­tures of the online pre­sen­ta­tion are audio clips of Got­tlieb dis­cussing spe­cif­ic pho­tographs, arti­cles about the col­lec­tion from Civ­i­liza­tion mag­a­zine and the Library of Con­gress Infor­ma­tion Bul­letin, an essay describ­ing Got­tlieb’s life and work, and a “Got­tlieb on Assign­ment” sec­tion that show­cas­es Down Beat arti­cles about Thelo­nious Monk, Dar­d­anelle, Willie “the Lion” Smith, and Bud­dy Rich.

You can also down­load high res­o­lu­tion ver­sions of near­ly every image in the archive. (To pur­chase prints, see Got­tlieb’s online gallery, Jazz Pho­tos.) There may be no bet­ter way, short of actu­al­ly being there and meet­ing the stars, to wit­ness the gold­en age of jazz than through the eyes and ears of such a sym­pa­thet­ic observ­er as William P. Got­tlieb. Enter the col­lec­tion here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear 2,000 Record­ings of the Most Essen­tial Jazz Songs: A Huge Playlist for Your Jazz Edu­ca­tion

Stan­ley Kubrick’s Jazz Pho­tog­ra­phy and The Film He Almost Made About Jazz Under Nazi Rule

How “America’s First Drug Czar” Waged War Against Bil­lie Hol­i­day and Oth­er Jazz Leg­ends

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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