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William P. Gottlieb: Photographs from the Golden Age of Jazz

Louis Armstrong, Carnegie Hall, New York, N.Y., ca. Apr. 1947

Louis Armstrong, Carnegie Hall, New York, N.Y., ca. Apr. 1947


Collection Overview

William P. Gottlieb: Photographs from the Golden Age of Jazz contains over 1600 photographs of celebrated jazz artists. The collection documents the jazz scene in New York City and Washington, D.C. from 1938 to 1948. Gottlieb was a jazz writer for the Washington Post and later a jazz writer-photographer at Down Beat magazine. During his career, Gottlieb took portraits of jazz legends including Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday, Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk. This online collection presents Gottlieb’s photographs, annotated contact prints, selected published prints, and related articles fromDown Beat magazine.

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Special Features

There are currently no Special Features for this collection.

Historical Eras

These historical era(s) are best represented in the collection although they may not be all-encompassing.

  • The Great Depression and World War II, 1929-1945
  • Postwar United States, 1945-early 1970s

Related Collections and Exhibits

These collections and exhibits contain thematically-related primary and secondary sources. Also browse the Collection Finder for more related material on the American Memory Web site.

Other Resources

Recommended additional sources of information.

Search Tips

Specific guidance for searching this collection To find items in this collection, search by Keyword or browse by Name Index that identifies people in the photographs; the Subject Index that lists topics covered by the photographs; and the Venue Index that identifies places where the photographs were taken. For help with general search strategies, see Finding Items in American Memory. Back to top

U.S. History


Louis Armstrong playing his horn

The William P. Gottlieb: Photographs from the Golden Age of Jazzcollection features approximately 1,600 photographs taken by the writer and photographer William P. Gottlieb. Most of the photographs were shot between 1938 and 1948. Included among them are portraits of some of the greatest and best known musicians of the era Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzie Gillespie, Billie Holiday, Stan Kenton, Charlie Parker, Mel Torme, and many more. The collection also includes articles from Down Beat magazine, for which Gottlieb worked after World War II, and images of Down Beat covers, as well as Gottlieb’s own reflections on a select group of images. Permission from the Gottlieb estate is required through February 16, 2010 for commercial uses or uses exceeding fair use. The collection provides an opportunity for students to examine in depth the art of photography, particularly portrait photography shot on location. It also provides a window into a particular piece of cultural history the jazz scene in an era when jazz was at its peak and new forms of this particularly American art form were evolving. Further, close analysis of the documents in the collection reveals the connections jazz and issues related to race, gender, and the labor movement. The collection can be searched by keyword or browsed by namesubject, or venue. Jazz in the 1930’sJazz is an American invention, developed by African-American musicians. It emerged in the early 1900s as its creators combined elements from West African musical traditions with elements from religious music and from other types of popular music based on European traditions. While some ingredients of jazz were borrowed from other musical genres, the music that emerged was unique, an art form of its own. A key element of jazz is improvisation, the adaptation of a melody or countermelody as a song is being performed. Thus, a song may be different every time it is played. The new musical creation was dubbed jazz around 1915, although the exact origins of the term are not known. New Orleans is considered the birthplace of jazz, but Chicago, New York, and Kansas City soon emerged as important centers for jazz musicians.

King Guion band

By the 1930s, when William Gottlieb began taking the photographs that comprise the William P. Gottlieb: Photographs from the Golden Age of Jazz collection, swing had become the most popular form of jazz. Swing has been described as having an optimistic feeling and the nation needed that optimism as the Great Depression showed no signs of relenting. People wanted to dance to the music played by large swing bands led by such musicians as Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Paul Whiteman, and Benny Goodman, and featuring such renowned soloists as Ella Fitzgerald. Swing bands played their music live on the radio, as well as in dance clubs, bars and restaurants, and concert halls. Jazz groups and audiences of the time were often segregated. Although African-American musicians played at such venues as Roseland in New York City, black people were not allowed in the audience. Still, some musicians broke the color barrier. When renowned African-American vocalist Billie Holiday toured with white bandleader Artie Shaw, audiences were shocked. White bandleader Benny Goodman worked with such noted African-American instrumentalists as Teddy Wilson (piano), Lionel Hampton (vibes), and Charlie Christian (guitar). Back to top

Jazz in the 1940s

Cab Calloway

U.S. entry into World War II had a major impact on jazz. Many musicians were drafted or enlisted; to fill the musical void, a number of bands made up completely of women sprang up around the country. Some musicians took their bands overseas to entertain the troops, while still others sold war bonds and performed concerts to raise funds for the war. At the same time, curfews and high entertainment taxes closed many of the venues in which jazz musicians played; rubber and gas rations made it virtually impossible for musicians to tour by bus. A disagreement between the musicians’ union and the record companies led to a two-year recording ban during the war. While the war raged, prejudice flared at home. The integrated Savoy ballroom was closed to keep black servicemen off the dance floor. Fights provoked by prejudice were common. Segregation and discrimination continued after the war. In the May 27, 1947, issue of Down Beat, William Gottlieb asked several musicians, “Has Southern Hospitality improved since the end of the war?” He received the following response from Cab Calloway: “Let me put it this way. This is one Cab that still won’t drive south of the Mason Dixon line unless there’s a sweet beat to the meter and no other fares handy.” Read the other responses to Gottlieb’s question and consider these questions:

  • Summarize the responses from the five musicians interviewed by Gottlieb.
  • Which musicians avoided playing in the South? What were their reasons?
  • How did Duke Ellington avoid potential problems in the South? What do you think Norman Granz might have said to Ellington about his willingness to play the South?
  • What do these comments suggest about the state of race relations in the southern United States in the late 1940s?

These views on the South contrast sharply with the views expressed when Gottlieb asked several musicians the following question: “How have you liked working outside the USA?” Tyree Glenn responded:

“Working overseas [in Europe] was a ball. People are very appreciative. They treat our music respectfully. Living is so pleasant, too. Except in the American zone of occupied Germany, Europeans showed no race prejudice. I’d have stayed there if it hadn’t been so difficult getting money out to my family.” From “Down Beat magazine (July 16, 1947)”

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  • What did jazz musicians of the 1940s enjoy about working in other countries?
  • What challenges did these musicians find in working overseas? Why might European nations have made sending money out of their countries difficult?
Thelonious Monk

The 1940s also marked changes in jazz. Perhaps in reaction to the simpler and more composed swing, musicians developed bebop, a form of jazz not intended as accompaniment for dancing. Instead, the audience was expected to listen carefully to the complex melodies and harmonies accompanied by a new style of drumming. Groups playing bebop were smaller than the large swing orchestras. Such musicians as Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, and Charlie Parker were leaders in the evolution of bebop. What exactly was bebop? William Gottlieb twice devoted his “Posin'” column in Down Beat to the question in April 1947 and again in September of that year. Read the responses in both columns:

  • Based on these responses, what characteristics distinguish be-bop from swing-style jazz?
  • What reasons did critics of be-bop give for disliking the new approach? How typical do you think their attitude is to a change in an art form? Can you think of similar responses to the development of other new musical forms?

The geography of jazz also changed after the war. The continued growth of the movie industry and the emerging technology of television provided work for musicians, many of whom moved from Eastern and Midwestern cities to the West Coast. In the August 13, 1947, Down Beat, Gottlieb asked musicians in New York and Hollywood, “Will Hollywood replace New York as the nation’s music center?” Perhaps not surprisingly, the respondents did not agree:

“Andy Russell: All top musicians are migrating to the coast, including guys who have been in New York for years. When name bands break up, where do the men go? California. . . I suppose it’s the easy, pleasant life and the lower cost of living that makes the coast attractive.” Skitch Henderson: New York is still IT. . . . As for popular music, except for Capitol records, there is no major institution in Hollywood. When someone like Sinatra really wants to be seen, he comes to the Waldorf. Me, too. It’s the eastern spots that count. From “Down Beat magazine (Aug. 13, 1947)”

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  • What evidence did the musicians give to justify their answers to this question? Which pieces of evidence are most convincing to you in terms of whether Hollywood was replacing New York as the nation’s music center?
  • What criteria would you use to decide if a city is a “music center” or an important center of jazz music? Which cities would meet your criteria?

Although “girl bands” formed when male musicians were serving in the military during World War II, women’s role in jazz over the course of the period covered in the collection was somewhat limited. Women generally were vocalists or played instruments considered more feminine, such as the piano or harp. William Gottlieb revealed something of the attitudes of the time when he reviewed a performance by the musician Dardanelle:


“Watching Dardanelle brings [Lionel] Hampton to mind in more ways than vibraphone playing. Mostly it’s the mutual versatility of the pair . . . leading a unit, singing, playing piano and vibes. . . . Unfortunately, this rushing about from one instrument to another, directing musicians, singing to the crowd and so forth is not as becoming to a delicate young girl as it is to a muscular, sweating male. The frenzy is incongruous to Dardanelle while it’s a spectacular selling point for Hamp.” From “Down Beat magazine (June 17, 1946)”

When asked if she would want her children to become musicians, Dardanelle responded:

“It’s a vicious racket. I don’t mean the part of being a girl in a man’s business. Boy or girl, you’ve got to play piano with one hand and either throw or ward off baseball bats with the other. I’d like my future children to know music. It’s a great thing. But when you make it your business, the joy of music flies off.” From “Down Beat magazine (Feb. 26, 1947)”

What do you conclude about attitudes toward women in jazz from these two quotations? Find more evidence in the collection to support your conclusion. Back to top

Critical Thinking

Chronological Thinking: Creating Timelines

Every individual has a personal timeline the chronology of events in that person’s life. That individual timeline is inextricably linked with the larger events of history. Events in history affect the individual’s life, for instance.

Gottlieb at typewriter.

Draw a timeline of the years from 1917-2006 (William P. Gottlieb’s life span). Use William P. Gottlieb’s Life and Work: A Brief Biography Based on Oral Histories to enter at least eight important events in Gottlieb’s life on the timeline. Using another color ink, add at least five historical events that you think affected Gottlieb’s life; these may include major political events or events in the history of technology or culture. You will be able to identify several events from the reading, but you may have to form hypotheses about other events. What does examining the completed timeline tell you about the relationship between individual lives and events on a larger scale? Do you think a similar timeline for one of the jazz artists pictured in the collection would show similar relationships with larger events? What about a personal timeline for someone in your family who lived in the same time period? Try making a personal timeline for yourself: What events in contemporary U.S. history have affected you?

Historical Comprehension: Using Visual Data

jazz audience.

Photographs can be valuable historical sources. However, they must be carefully studied and analyzed, just as any other primary source would be analyzed. Use the tips below to analyze this photograph of a jazz audience in 1948. In analyzing a photograph, it is helpful first to observe the photograph without drawing any conclusions. For example, you might ask such questions as:

  • When was the photograph taken?
  • Where was the photograph taken? What was the significance of this location?
  • Who is in the photograph? What is the relationship of the various people pictured?
  • What objects are shown in the photograph? What is the significance of these objects?
  • Why was the photograph taken?
  • What choices did the photographer make about posing, grouping, lighting, where the photographer was positioned in relation to the subject? How do the photographer’s choices influence what the viewer sees in the photograph?

Next, note your personal reactions to the photograph, anchoring your subjective response in something seen in the photograph:

  • How does looking at the photograph make you feel? How do the photographer’s choices influence your response to the photograph?
  • What associations do you have with the setting of the photograph or the people and objects portrayed?

Next, place the photograph in a larger historical context. What do you know about the period in which the photograph was taken or about the event or people depicted? What does this photograph add to your understanding of the period, event, or people? Finally, consider what you can conclude from your analysis of the photograph. For example, what can you conclude about the jazz scene, jazz audiences, or life in 1948? Use the same process to analyze any photograph from the collection that interests you.

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