Art 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 the Art Kane photo shoot.
Along with 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 speak with Patterson and ask about his theory on 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.
It’s an interesting parlor game to think about where Miles, Ellington, Coltrane and the other no-shows would be located in the famous photograph.
Looking at the photo now, I wonder where Miles 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.