Art & Design

An Appreciation: William Gottlieb, Jazz Photographer

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Musician and Day to Day contributor David Was looks back at the life of photographer William Gottlieb, who died Sunday. His images captured some of the greatest jazz artists of the bebop era during the 1940s.

DAVID WAS reporting:

A great eye and a great spirit has passed from our midst: jazz world photographer William Gottlieb.


With a remembrance, it's musician and DAY TO DAY contributor David Was.

WAS: You have almost certainly seen William Gottlieb's images of artists like Dizzy Gillespie and Duke Ellington, without knowing who snapped the shutter. Beginning in 1939, Gottlieb's photographs accompanied his weekly jazz column Swing Sessions in the Washington Post. He was paid to write the column, but got no compensation for the pictures. That has changed considerably. Gottlieb's images of jazz's most august figures now command premium prices among collectors, and are also available in a book called The Golden Age of Jazz, originally published in 1979, and now its 12th printing.

I had the opportunity to review that collection when it first came out, and noted that the hardboiled humor that seasoned in Gottlieb's anecdotes was worth the price of admission alone.

A few weeks later, I got a letter from Mr. Gottlieb, who said that of all the praise heaped on his work, mine pleased him the most for having noted the wit behind the lens.

Generous soul that he was, he asked me to pick out a few pictures from the book, and then sent me some beautiful prints. His black and white images of the jazz life are without parallel. Taken in nightclubs with bulky Rolleiflex and speed graphics cameras, you can almost hear the pop and feel the heat of the flashbulbs in every image.

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WAS: Some of William Gottlieb's photos are as famous as the musicians themselves: Duke Ellington in front of a dressing room mirror at the Paramount Theater in 1946, pianist Thelonious Monk looking blissfully spaced out a year later at the Cradle of Bebop, Mitten's Playhouse in Manhattan, and a portrait of alto sax legend Charlie Parker, and a young Mile Davis on the bandstand of the Three Deuces.

The images are without romance, as hard-edged and flat as mug shots, which somehow befits the rough and tumble of a jazz life.

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WAS: William Gottlieb left the jazz world in 1948, and began to produce educational filmstrips. He also wrote and illustrated children's books, including the million-selling Laddie the Super Dog for Golden Books. But he will be best remembered as the sharp-eyed witness to one of the most creative musical decades in American history.

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CHADWICK: Musician David Was on photographer William Gottlieb, who died this weekend at the age of 89.

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