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Jazz Musician And Subject Of Iconic Photo Revisits 'A Great Day In Harlem'


Finally today, we're going to revisit an iconic photograph. The photo "A Great Day In Harlem" was published in 1959 in Esquire magazine in the magazine's golden age of jazz edition. It's black and white, and it pictures nearly every jazz luminary of the era standing on the steps of a Harlem brownstone and fanning out onto the sidewalk in front. There were 57 musicians in all.

SONNY ROLLINS: There was Dizzy Gillespie. There was Roy Eldridge. There was Thelonious Monk.

MARTIN: Saxophonist Sonny Rollins stood in the front row.

ROLLINS: My god. I've looked up to these - all of these people that were in this photo. So when I was asked to do it, I mean, it was an honor. It was my saxophone idol Coleman Hawkins. Then there was also my other idol, Lester Young. There was Art Blakey, the great drummer. And the women who were represented - there was Mary Lou Williams and Marian McPartland. Miles Davis was out of town, and John Coltrane was out of town. And I think Duke Ellington was out of town. But everybody that was in New York seemed to be there.


MARTIN: Sixty years later, Sonny Rollins is one of only two of the artists in the photo who are still living.

ROLLINS: It was just great for me being there and being with all these great people, some of whom I knew, many of whom I didn't know. That's one thing about that photo - it went through generations. I was the youngest guy in that photo, by the way.

MARTIN: His career was on the rise. He'd recorded the record "Freedom Suite" just months earlier. It was the first major work by a jazz musician to address civil rights concerns.


ROLLINS: The "Freedom Suite" was my signature number in which I had a statement going into it about the injustices that exist in the country and so on and so forth. The "Freedom Suite" opened the door for a lot of other jazz artists who began recording jazz protest albums. So it was very important, actually.


MARTIN: As for the photo, Sonny Rollins watched over the years as that picture of "A Great Day In Harlem" became an important part of music history. The scene has been recreated by everybody from hip-hop artists to Netflix actors. Sonny Rollins praises the photographer, Art Kane, as a visionary.

ROLLINS: The photo has become huger and huger and huger every day. It humanized the jazz world, the jazz people. And I don't know if Art Kane thought about that when he did it, but he should be really praised highly for getting that picture together. I still don't know how he called all of those guys and got them together, and they all came (laughter). You know, it was just amazing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONNY ROLLINS' "FREEDOM SUITE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.