It Was ‘A Great Day in Harlem,’ But Where Was Miles Davis?

great-day-in-harlemArt Kane’s legendary photograph A Great Day In Harlem is one of my favorite images; a single snapshot of jazz history.

Often times, when I look over the faces of all those jazz greats who gathered on that August day in 1958, I wonder, “Hey! Where’s Miles Davis?”

I was reminded of my curiosity after reading Ian Patterson’s terrific retrospective of the classic, black and white group portrait of jazz musicians.

Patterson notes the prominent names of jazz legends that were not in attendance on 126th street in uptown Harlem for the photo shoot, resulting in an interesting sub-plot to the actual events of that day.

Along with Miles Davis, big names like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald (among others) were also not in attendance.

Patterson writes, “All those absent giants of jazz, and others too numerous mention, are nonetheless felt somehow to be present—represented by musicians who played with them, and who inspired and were inspired by them. Like with any family reunion, its absent members are with us in spirit.”

But Miles Davis, where was he?

I was lucky enough to catch up with Patterson recently and asked his theory of Miles’ absence.

“I don’t know where Miles was that day,” says Patterson, “but as none of his usual sidemen around that time (Cannonball, Coltrane, Red Garland, Paul Chambers, Philly Joe) were in the picture it is quite likely he was out of town with his group that day.”

He added, “I do tend to think that even had he been in town he wouldn’t have been too bothered to turn up for the photo shoot. I don’t think it was his style at all.”

And let’s not forget the shoot took place at 10am – not exactly prime time for jazz musicians, many of whom had probably just gone to bed a few hours earlier after a long night of playing. Then again, some of the musicians might have just gone straight from the gig to the photo shoot.

Looking at the photo now, I wonder where Miles Davis would have been positioned for the photo; would he be front and center with Stuff Smith and Coleman Hawkins, or perhaps he’d rather be off to the (right) side, mingling with fellow trumpeters Dizzy Gillespie and Roy Eldridge.

Or maybe he walks up, checks the scene and decides to hell with it and goes home.

I’m not sure if the musicians were told where to stand, or if they just showed up and stood around waiting for novice photographer Art Kane to get started. I really need to see Jean Bach’s 1994 documentary of the event.

I found this quote from Art Kane on “I couldn’t control it because you had musicians who hadn’t seen each other in one solid congregation probably ever before, and to try to control this group was near impossible.”

George Rafael, writing at The First Post, had this to say:

“Establishing a semblance of order at the shoot was another problem. Musicians who hadn’t seen one another in years fell into each others arms, caught up on old times, though stride giant Willie ‘the Lion’ Smith – who only taught Fats Waller the ropes – got tired of waiting and strolled off frame. A fatigued Count Basie sat on the curb and was joined by a swarm of children. Rex Stuart, late of the Ellington band, brought his ax along in case of a jam.”

That Kane pulled it off at all is a minor miracle. Sounds like quite an ordeal.

Looking back, it’s an interesting parlor game to think about where Miles Davis, Ellington, Coltrane and the other no-shows would be located in the famous photograph.

The photo is close to perfect as is, and perhaps there’s an added bit of folklore to the photograph because of who didn’t make it. Still, it feels like a family photo that’s missing a few siblings.

But back to the whereabouts of Miles Davis…

Marian McPartland, one of the 57 jazz artists in the photo, is quoted in Patterson’s story with her own theory as to Miles’ whereabouts: “Well, of course Miles (Davis) probably thought: ‘Oh, to hell with that, I’m not going.’ I’m sure he didn’t care about that a bit. But I’m surprised that Duke (Ellington) didn’t go because a lot of his band members were there, like Sonny Greer and several of the brass players.”

In the story Patterson recounts that, “notices were put up in all the jazz clubs, and at the Musician’s Union Local 802 office, announcing that the photo shoot was scheduled for ten o’clock on the morning of August the 12th, 1958.”

Again, 10am is not ideal scheduling for jazz musicians.

There might not be a great conspiracy, or even amusing anecdote as to why Miles Davis missed the photo shoot. Patterson’s opinion is most likely the correct version: out of town or ambivalent. It’s one of the two – or perhaps both.

I’m trying to recall if his absence was mentioned in any of the biographies, or perhaps in his autobiography. I also wonder, as the years went by and the photograph became so iconic, if Miles Davis regretted not being there. Or maybe he didn’t care one way or the other.

No matter. It’s still a wonderful photograph with or without Miles Davis. Sure, it might have been an even greater day in Harlem had a few other legends been able to attend, or chose to be there, but that’s their loss. They missed out on being part of what has become a much-loved image, jazz history in a single photograph.

A Great Day in Harlem: The Spirit Lives – 50 Years On

Image: A Great Day in Harlem (credit: Art Kane)


4 thoughts on “It Was ‘A Great Day in Harlem,’ But Where Was Miles Davis?”

  1. According to Jean Bach, Producer of the Flim, Miles Davis was in Germany on this great day.

    I wonder where was Coltrane.

  2. I have been looking for this photo for quite a while. Can you tell me where I can buy it
    Thanks Fred

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