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The Man Who Photographed Be-Bop

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When a photographer gets a great shot of a performer it’s most often because they are lucky or skilled enough to catch a moment on stage when something magical happens. To get great shots of performers in private is much more difficult. William Gottlieb managed, time and again, to achieve both. All too often, when photographers take pictures of people, they fail to capture the essence of the person – they merely capture an image. William Gottlieb knew most of the musicians whose pictures he took; maybe that’s what helped him find the person behind the performer. His remarkable photos bring to life a unique period in the history of jazz. Bill Gottlieb is the man who photographed Be-Bop

Born in Brooklyn, New York in 1917, Gottlieb was of similar age to many of the jazz greats that feature in his photography. William went to Lehigh University to study economics; both his parents died while he was a teenager. It was in 1936 while at Lehigh that he first became interested in jazz. Having been brought low by a bout of food poisoning, he spent much of the summer in bed listening to jazz records which had been supplied by a high school friend and chatting with him about “America’s contribution to the arts.”

On his return to university, Gottlieb began writing a regular column for The Lehigh Review, later becoming its editor-in-chief. On leaving university he got a job on the Washington Post selling advertising space. After a few months he persuaded them to let him write a weekly column about jazz; the Post agreed to pay him an extra $10 a week. Initially, a photographer went to jazz clubs and concerts with Gottlieb, but soon the Post decided this was an unnecessary expense. Anxious to continue to get pictures for his column, he traded some of his precious jazz records for a 31/4 x 41/4 -inch Speed Graphic camera, film, and flashbulbs.

The camera was just like the ones that we’re all used to seeing in classic Hollywood movies when photographers crowd around their victim. It all looks easy on film, but in reality using a Speed Graphic was a lot more complicated. Getting to grips with the new camera was a challenge. After just one afternoon’s tuition from a Post photographer, William had no alternative but to teach himself. Because the Speed Graphic was limited to two exposures without reloading, it meant that he had to think through precisely what he wanted to take each time he used the camera. In addition, the film and flashbulbs were expensive, so there was none of the flexibility offered by modern digital photography. The result is quality, not quantity in William Gottlieb’s work.
By the time war broke out he also had his own radio show in Washington DC that featured many of the great jazz musicians who passed through the capital. Other guests included his friends, Nesuhi and Ahmet Ertegun, both keen jazz fans as well as being the sons of the Turkish Ambassador to the United States. Ahmet Ertegun went on to co-found Atlantic Records. In 1941 William left his advertising job at the Post, deciding instead to teach at the University of Maryland. By 1943 he had been drafted into the Army Air Corps where he served as a photo officer.

With the war over, William settled in New York and got a job on Down Beat magazine as a reporter and reviewer, but he continued to take photographs. Many of his photographs were taken in the great jazz clubs that were to be found on 52nd Street or on ‘Swing Street’ the block between 5th and 6th Avenues.

By the end of the 1940s, having married and had children, William thought it time to settle down and get himself a regular job that would allow him to spend evenings at home, not out on the town with his jazz musician friends. He was offered a job at Curriculum Films, an educational filmstrip company. Later he started his own company, and when this was bought out by McGraw Hill he became a president of a division; it’s where he stayed until he retired in 1979.

William Gottlieb died of a stroke in 2006, shortly after a documentary, entitled ‘Riffs’ about his life was made. His photographs have appeared on hundreds of LP and CD covers, on clothing, postage stamps, in scores of publications, and have been exhibited in galleries and museums around the world. William Gottlieb will be remembered, not least, because he captured people with a truth that few photographers managed to achieve. His photographs portray the essence of the performers – which words alone cannot convey.

For more go to the Library of Congress web site.

count basie
Count Basie, Ray Bauduc, Bob Haggart, Harry Edison, Herschel Evans, Eddie Miller, Lester Young, Matty Matlock, June Richmond, and Bob Crosby, Howard Theater, Washington, D.C., ca. 1941].
Bird miles
Charlie Parker, Tommy Potter (bass), Miles Davis, and Duke Jordan (at the piano) at the Three Deuces, New York, N.Y., ca. Aug. 1947
Duke Ellington and Django Reinhardt at the Aquarium, New York, N.Y., ca. Nov. 1946
Coleman Hawkins and Miles Davis at the Three Deuces, New York, N.Y., ca. July 1947
Dizzy Gillespie taken in New York, ca. May 1947
Ben webster
Barney Bigard, Ben Webster, Otto Toby Hardwick(e), Harry Carney, Rex William Stewart, Sonny Greer, Wallace (Leon) Jones(?), and Ray Nance, Howard Theater(?), Washington, D.C.
460000 Louis Armstrong
Louis Armstrong and Jack Teagarden ca 1948



  1. Colina Carubia

    November 2, 2014 at 4:24 pm

    WOW! Such great pictures! Please…let”s see more…

  2. Alex Foster

    January 11, 2015 at 3:13 pm

    Great photos brings back great memories of the jazz giants I knew,It gives me renewed energy as I pilot Jazz Meets Motown drive to keep jazz alive. Thanks Alex Foster. Please come out and bring friends and relatives to Jazz Meets Motown Monday Night Jazz Jam Sessions at the Bohemian Hotel Celebration 700 Bloom Street Celebration, Florida from 7:00 PM to 10:00 PM.

  3. Rick Koler

    May 8, 2015 at 2:13 am

    Great photos – history well preserved.

  4. Jones Lemnge

    June 18, 2015 at 11:05 am

    they are so great

  5. charles

    June 18, 2015 at 5:52 pm

    These pics are great as the performers. No one can do what these guys did. Parkers speed alone sets him on top of the heap.

  6. Navroze Contractror

    June 29, 2015 at 1:21 am

    Historical images, wonderful. I have been photographing jazz musicians since 1960’s round the world though I olive in India. I have had one man shows or my jazz images and some are in the collection of the Smithsonian Museum, Washington. If anyone is interested I am most willing to share.

  7. angela levey

    November 15, 2015 at 7:02 pm

    My husband(Stan Levey) was in that picture with Tommy Potter,Duke Jordan,Bird & Miles–I have the full pic.—


  8. Boots McGhee

    March 26, 2016 at 12:25 pm

    William took many a photograph of my pop, trumpeter Howard McGhee. I have several that top my memorabilia

  9. Kim jongchul

    March 27, 2016 at 12:50 am

    Very nice book

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