Jazz Day: The Making of a Photograph

February 6, 2017
Jazz Day: The Making of a Photograph Book Cover Jazz Day: The Making of a Photograph
Roxane Orgill
Candlewick Press
March 6th, 2016
Francis Vallejo

What happens when you invite as many jazz musicians as you can to pose for a photo in 1950s Harlem? Playful verse and glorious artwork capture an iconic moment for American jazz.

When Esquire magazine planned an issue to salute the American jazz scene in 1958, graphic designer Art Kane pitched a crazy idea: how about gathering a group of beloved jazz musicians and photographing them? He didn’t own a good camera, didn’t know if any musicians would show up, and insisted on setting up the shoot in front of a Harlem brownstone. Could he pull it off? In a captivating collection of poems, Roxane Orgill steps into the frame of Harlem 1958, bringing to life the musicians’ mischief and quirks, their memorable style, and the vivacious atmosphere of a Harlem block full of kids on a hot summer’s day. Francis Vallejo’s vibrant, detailed, and wonderfully expressive paintings do loving justice to the larger-than-life quality of jazz musicians of the era. Includes bios of several of the fifty-seven musicians, an author’s note, sources, a bibliography, and a foldout of Art Kane’s famous photograph.

(via Goodreads)


I spent the last week in bed with a really bad cold. The sinus pressure was so awful I couldn’t look at a screen– computer, phone, tablet, Kindle — it didn’t matter! I spent my time laying in bed snoozing or reading paper books. Thankfully, I had a plethora to keep my company. So, while I was a bit silent online (thank goodness for pre-scheduled blog posts!), I still got a lot accomplished in the world of books. No rest for the weary… or, uh, something like that. It was nice to pick up a collection of physical books, most of them featuring heavy illustrations, and get lost in the written word.

The first book on this journey is a beautifully illustrated book of poems inspired by real-life events. Jazz Day: The Making of a Famous Photograph is an incredible book. Bringing together two genres of books children tend to avoid (poetry and non-fiction) Roxane Orgill takes us on a beautiful journey into the minds and experiences of American greatest jazz players on August 12th, 1958.

Art Kane worked for Esquire magazine in 1958. The magazine was releasing a special supplement titled The Golden Age of Jazz. Kane’s idea was to gather as many jazz musicians as possible to a single place for a photograph in front of an “absolutely typical [Harlem] brownstone”. He found one and got permission from the police to block off the street for a few hours in the morning of Tuesday, August 12th. He borrowed a camera. Esquire put out the word to studios, musicians unions, nightclub owners- anyone: A photoshoot, no instruments required.

But Kane had no idea if anyone would show up.

The result? Harlem 1958 – a now iconic photograph with 58 jazz musicians which took 5 hours to shoot. A piece of history:

Photo Credit: Art Kane; Harlem 1958


Sadly, I hadn’t heard of this photograph before reading Jazz Day (apparently, this photograph is the reason Tom Hank’s character flies to America and gets stuck in the airport in the film The Terminal — I am so out of the pop-culture loop). As someone with a music degree, this is a bit embarrassing. I adore Jazz. I am obviously just not as up on the history, sadly.  Thank goodness I found this book!  This is a gorgeous collection of poems and corresponding illustrations.

Jazz has always been compared to poetry. It’s fluid and ever changing; not sticking to strict form in most senses. This book felt perfect as a collection of poems. It embodied the personalities of some incredible jazz greats. This group of people requires freedom, not structure.

Francis Vallejo’s illustrations match perfectly. The acrylic and pastels show movement- like these cats can’t sit still. Which, my guess is, they couldn’t– there’s a reason it took 5 hours to take this shot. There’s a bit of a comic-panel style in some of these illustrations as well, which really appealed to me. I appreciate how the illustrations aren’t necessarily traditional. Just like Jazz, the art felt free to be what it needed to be in the moment.

My favorite poems:

  • So Glad about Milt “Fump” Hilton, bassist and amateur photographer who wanted his wife to also capture the film
  • Late about Thelonious Monk, pianist
  • She’s Here! About Maxine Sullivan, singer
  • Esquire, 60 Cents about Alfred, a fictional boy who was hanging around that day of the photograph

Lastly, I was blown away by the notes at the end of the book. Orgill provides some background into her inspirations. There is a collection of mini biographies for each musician who is featured in a poem, along with the corresponding illustration by Vallejo. There are source notes and an extensive bibliography. Never in a poetry book have I seen a bibliography– but this just shows that Orgill did her work thoroughly.

This is an incredible snapshot of history in beautiful words and illustrations. I strongly recommend this book to anyone who has a passion for history, poetry, jazz, or just a well-crafted piece of work.

What do you think?

  • Have you heard of this photograph, Harlem 1958?
  • Did you enjoy reading non-fiction or poetry as a child? If so, any recommendations?
  • Do you listen to jazz? Who are your favorite artists?


  • Laila@BigReadingLife February 6, 2017 at 11:36 am

    Wow. This is so cool. Thanks for highlighting this awesome book.

    I did read nonfiction as a child – I remember reading books about the paranormal, Bigfoot, Loch Ness Monster, that kind of thing. Also there was a series of biographies of historical figures I liked. It was an older series, way before I was born, but I loved them. Virginia Dare, Pocahontas, etc. But I have always been a fiction reader foremost.

    • Jackie B February 9, 2017 at 9:33 am

      Those both sound like really cool non-fiction series! I found that I loved historical fiction as a child; I think that if I had more exposure to non-fiction I would have really loved it– but I’m just theorizing. I also love fiction, but I think that’s mostly due to the writing style of fiction vs. non-fiction. I should dig more deeply into that. Hm. Food for thought.

  • Books, Vertigo and Tea February 6, 2017 at 12:58 pm

    This is so neat! I admit, I have not heard of the photo either, but wow 🙂 This is worth looking into. I enjoy Jazz when I encounter it, although I truly have little to no knowledge of it or the history. I simply know I appreciate the way it sounds. I am also really digging the illustrations above. Thank you <3 Hope the head has cleared my dear!

    • Jackie B February 9, 2017 at 10:01 am

      Thanks, Danielle! You don’t need to know or understand music to appreciate it. I think we put too much stock in “getting it” and being educated about it. That’s what’s great about art — physical and non– because we can appreciate it not matter our education or experiences. That said, it’s also great to dig into the history of things. I really enjoyed the connection of music to poetry to art. It’s brilliant.
      (Also – I’m FINALLY feeling better. That stuck around for far too long!)

      • Danielle February 9, 2017 at 12:34 pm

        It did seem you were ill for quite a bit.. ugh I wish more people could understand that we can connect with art (all forms) without knowing the entire history. I can enjoy a song or a painting without ever knowing anything about it. Sometimes you just appreciate. You are so right!

  • theorangutanlibrarian February 6, 2017 at 6:20 pm

    Sorry you were ill!! But it’s good you were able to get some reading done. This looks like such a good book- it’s so cool that it’s a snapshot of history and the illustrations look lovely!!

    • Jackie B February 9, 2017 at 10:02 am

      Thanks! Feeling better now, for sure. This was a fun book and I’d definitely recommend it to anyone.

  • LizScanlon February 7, 2017 at 8:30 am

    I hope you’re feeling 100% better 🙂
    Even though I don’t listen to jazz (I don’t know, I just can’t for some reason, maybe because of the fluidity and artful form. I don’t have enough brain cells to comprehend it. which is sad!) I think the poetry is something worth checking out and the illustrations surely make this even more interesting. Great review, interesting book.

    • Jackie B February 9, 2017 at 10:16 am

      FINALLY I am. It’s been almost two weeks of head pressure now. Yuck.
      Jazz certainly isn’t for everyone. I’m glad that you recognize the poetry and illustrations are worthwhile. It’s also just an interesting moment in history, jazz or no! Thanks for the kudos. 🙂

  • Resh Susan @ The Book Satchel February 7, 2017 at 10:45 pm

    Great post. I was not a fan of non fiction as a child. I did read poetry but now I read more of fiction and less of poetry. I am glad the book was a great read for you. I don’t listen to jazz btw.

    I hope you are feeling better now

    • Jackie B February 9, 2017 at 10:47 am

      Thanks! I am feeling better now– it took almost two whole weeks! Yikes.
      Haha- I love how this book doesn’t really touch anything in your life you actively participate in. That’s my favorite part of blogging– seeing the diverse options for reading!

  • Amanda @Cover2CoverMom February 11, 2017 at 11:36 am

    I’m glad that you are feeling better! I had a sinus infection last month and it was the pits… the weather this winter in Ohio has been all over the board, which doesn’t help on the sinus front.

    I actually came across this book in my search of diverse children’s books. I must admit this book was a little intimidating as I do not typically pick up poetry. HOWEVER I did just get done reading Brown Girl Dreaming which is written in verse, so maybe I will give this one a go. It sounds like it was very well researched, which is something I really appreciate.

    • Jackie B February 13, 2017 at 10:22 am

      Thanks, Amanda! I am on the mend now for sure. Ohio weather is *always* all over the board, but you’re right– it makes sinus pressure a commonality. Lame.

      This was definitely well researched! Plus, the poems are all super short which is nice for younger audiences. I digested this book more slowly than I expected I would, but I think that was due to a combination of my passion for jazz and being distracted by the beautiful illustrations. I recently picked up Brown Girl Dreaming! I love how we are both reading similar books around the same time. It blows my mind.

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