Inside the Vail Jazz Festival: How a pork chop changed how we see jazz
Inside the Vail Jazz Festival
Ask a few long-term locals what was the best year for skiing in Vail and I am sure you would get a variety of opinions. The same is true for jazz fans. Take the year 1959; Miles Davis recorded the all-time biggest selling jazz album, “Kinda Blue,” and Dave Brubeck recorded “Take Five,” the biggest selling jazz single. So you could say that 1959 was a great year, but in truth, there have been many great years. So what was the “Golden Age of Jazz” and what does a pork chop have to do with it?
The story begins in 1936, when a college sophomore, William P. Gottlieb, eats an undercooked pork chop contracting trichinosis. He spends several months in bed, visited by a pal who is passionate about jazz and who constantly plays his recordings of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and others for his bedridden buddy. As they say, “the rest is history.” Gottlieb becomes intoxicated by jazz and his life is never the same.
The music bug
Graduating in 1938, he takes a job selling ads for the Washington Post, volunteering to write a weekly jazz column, earning $10 a week. He trades hundreds of his jazz records for a camera and starts photographing jazz performers, as well as writing about them.
Being a journalist, Gottlieb generally focuses on interviewing the musicians he plans to photograph, so that he knows and understands them. With a limited budget for supplies and a bulky camera, Gottlieb is only able to take a few shots per session, but he is aided by his passion and knowledge of his subjects’ music and he is determined to capture their character and personality in black and white images. This approach enables him to portray the essence of his subjects and as a result his classic photos define how the public remembers the legendary figures that he photographed. Gottlieb’s photographs have become synonymous with the art form of jazz. Whitney Balliett, the great jazz critic, said it so well: “Gottlieb was not taking pictures; he was photographing the music.”
Some of his most famous images are of the jazz giants Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk and Benny Goodman, to name just a few.
Salesman, journalist, photographer and author
Convinced by a bookstore owner in 1979, Gottlieb published a book of his photographs. “The Golden Age of Jazz,” now in its 17th edition, contains over 200 of his greatest photographs taken between 1938 and 1948, along with his notes about the backgrounds of the photos. Gottlieb believed that the decade covered by his photographs warranted the title of his book because the original jazz greats — Armstrong, et al — were in their prime, the masters of the swing era; Goodman, Basie and Ellington were at the top of the charts and Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk and a band of renegade musicians were pushing the limits of jazz and bebop.
Gottlieb’s most treasured images are now part of the William P. Gottlieb Collection in the Library of Congress and pursuant to his directive, they entered into the public domain in 2010, enabling everyone to enjoy them. In fact, all of the images are available online and can be downloaded and enjoyed free of charge at http://www.loc.gov/collections and search for “William Gottlieb.”
Howard Stone is the Founder and Artistic Director of Vail Jazz, the presenter of the annual Vail Jazz Festival each summer and an annual Winter Jazz Series, both of which feature internationally renowned artists. In addition, Vail Jazz presents educational programs throughout the year with a special focus on young musicians and young audiences. Many of Vail Jazz’s performances and educational programs are presented free of charge. This column is readapted from the original archived edition, republished to commemorate Vail Jazz’s 25th Anniversary season in 2019. For information about upcoming performances, visit vailjazz.org.