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A jazz picture is worth a thousand memories

By Jim Regancsmonitor.com / August 19, 2004



HALIFAX, NOVA SCOTIA

Question: What do Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, Coleman Hawkins, Gene Krupa, Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins, and Mary Lou Williams have in common? (No points for simply pointing out that they are all giants in Jazz music.) In fact, all these luminaries -and 49 of their peers- share one very specific time and place in jazz history - the front of a Harlem brownstone at 10 o'clock on an August morning in 1958.

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That morning they gathered to appear in a group portrait for Esquire magazine, and the resulting image has come to be known as the greatest photograph in the history of jazz. Surfers can explore that picture in detail at Harlem.org.

Harlem.org's subtitle invites the visitor to "explore jazz history through one photograph," and that's exactly what the site sets out to do. There are almost no other images at this site, a minimalist design. But like the Ken Burns series on jazz, there is content of interest to both the aficionado and dilettante. (Aspiring photographers may also draw inspiration from the image - the first professional assignment in what became the long and successful career of Art Kane.)

The means of exploring the site is straightforward - the 57-person group portrait is broken into six sections, each holding a handful of artists. Click on one of the active areas of the photograph, and the site loads a detail image with an interactive caption and in some cases a few additional notes about the people in the shot or the photo session itself. (Maxine Sullivan apparently knew the words to over 200 songs by heart. When Count Basie got tired of standing and sat on a curb, he was joined by a dozen neighborhood kids - now anonymously immortal.)

Captions include links to individual pages for each performer which, like the detail shots, offer a few lines of information as well as a collection of recommended albums and relevant discussion forums hosted onsite. The forums aren't exactly seething with activity, but can still hold useful information. (The Count Basie forum only has two pages of input since May 2000, but does include such links as the official Count Basie website and the "Basie Centennial Ball" being held in New York this October.)

Of course, if you prefer a more orderly exploration, or are looking for someone you only know by name, Harlem.org also lists its virtuosos alphabetically, by instrument, and even jazz style (from Be Bop to Post-Bop, from Big Band to Dixieland). Already followed links are highlighted as such, to minimize unintentional backtracking, and all of the site's starting points are available on the left side of every page.

The content here is superficial enough that it won't bog down the browsing of the jazz neophyte (you won't be spending an entire day here), but the overall impact of the event should still impress anyone interested in the roots of the music. (Imagine if the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Elvis, Buddy Holly, Otis Redding, Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, Jimi Hendrix, and a few dozen others were all photographed in the crosswalk at Abbey Road - captured during Annie Leibovitz's first professional assignment.) For those who would like to explore the event in greater detail, a TV documentary about the photo session ("A Great Day in Harlem") was made in 1994.

There is also a recent addition to the site in the form of an essay about a little considered impact of the digital music revolution. In "iTunes versus Preservation," site creator Wayne Bremser calls attention to the possible -but not necessary- loss of 'archival' information about music when recordings that originally came with labels and liner notes are converted into MP3s and/or are sold over the Internet. (While exploring the phenomenon from a jazz perspective, the situation is the same for every music genre - and the rise of digital music may well also mark a significant loss in this information across the board.)

A simple site with a single mission, Harlem.org effectively communicates the unique nature of that August morning in 1958, and then leaves visitors to decide for themselves if they want to learn more about the music from other sources. There aren't many sites out there with that kind of self control.

Harlem.org can be found (no points for guessing this one either) at http://www.harlem.org/.

(* There is one other picture at harlem.org, taken by Kane on that same morning as the more famous shot was being set up. The resulting close up of 5 of jazz's great drummers was taken from near the foot of the steps in the center of the main image.)

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