The Eye of Jazz: The Photographs of William P. Gottlieb

Color image of a rainy street, packed with parked cars, with names of jazz clubs lit up in bright neon signs.

New York City’s 52nd Street on a rainy night in July 1948. Photo: William P. Gottlieb. Prints and Photographs Division.

This story first appeared in the Library of Congress Magazine.

One of the world’s great collections of jazz photos got its start with a questionable piece of pork and a bad case of trichinosis.

The victim, a Lehigh University student named William P. Gottlieb, was laid up for some time, and his friend Doc would come by to help him pass the hours, bringing along jazz records from his collection.

Gottlieb, no fan of the genre beforehand, was hooked.

After graduating in 1936, he accepted an advertising job at The Washington Post for $25 a week and, wanting to earn extra money, persuaded the editors to let him write a weekly jazz column for an extra $10.

They agreed but told Gottleib he’d have to take his own photos, so he bought a Speed Graphic camera and taught himself to use it.

Working for the Post and later for DownBeat magazine over a 10-year span, Gottlieb captured the era’s greatest musicians in their element — Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis and countless others. He left jazz journalism and photography in 1948, when he was just 31. He went into the educational film business, wrote some children’s books and was a serious amateur tennis player. He died in 2006, at age 89.

In 1995, the Library purchased Gottlieb’s collection — some 1,600 negatives and color transparencies, plus exhibition, reference and contact prints. In 2010, the photos entered the public domain, in accordance with Gottlieb’s wishes.

Medium close up shot of Charlie Parker playhing his saxophone, wearing a suit and tie.

The legendary Charlie Parker playing at the Three Deuces in August 1947. Photo: William P. Gottlieb. Prints and Photographs Division.

Gottlieb was paying for his own film and flashbulbs, so he quickly learned to make each picture count.

“I knew the music, I knew the musicians, I knew in advance when the right moment would arrive,” he wrote decades later in his book of photographs, “The Golden Age of Jazz.” “It was purposeful shooting.”

He tried to capture not just a moment but the musicians’ inner qualities — the cool of Monk at the keyboard, wearing a goatee and a beret; the playful Gillespie peeking out from behind Fitzgerald at the mic; Ellington in his dressing room, as sophisticated as the music he created.

When he photographed Django Reinhardt, Gottlieb made sure to show the mutilated fingers of the guitarist’s fret hand — the result of a fire that left Reinhardt badly burned and forced him to learn to play his instrument again.

His photo of Holiday, lost in a mid-song moment, is perhaps the most famous image in jazz; decades, later, it served as the basis for a postage stamp. You could, Gottlieb wrote, look at the photo and feel the anguish in her voice.

Gottlieb’s columns and his book are full of stories of his encounters with musicians — revealing, heartbreaking, funny.

Armstrong carried copies of his diet in his jacket pocket and would hand one to folks he thought could use the help. Gottlieb once ran into him at a dentist’s office, and they stopped to chat. Armstrong started to leave, then turned back, looked Gottlieb up and down and pulled a sheet of paper from his pocket. “Hey, Pops,” Armstrong said. “There’s this diet, man. The greatest. Try it.”

Billie Holiday onstage, singing into a microphone.

This 1947 photo of Billie Holiday, is one of the most iconic images in jazz. Photo: William P. Gottlieb. Prints and Photographs Division.

By late 1948, drugs and alcohol had taken such a toll on Holiday that she frequently failed to show up for gigs. At one such show, Gottlieb, on a hunch, went to the dressing room and found her there, half dressed and totally out of it.

“I helped her get herself together and led her to the microphone,” he later wrote. “She looked terrible. Sounded worse. I put my notebook in my pocket, placed a lens cap on my camera and walked out, choosing to remember this remarkable creature as she once was.”

The hundreds of photos of the Gottleib collection allow us to do the same, to remember this remarkable American art form, as it once was.

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