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William P. Gottlieb, 89; Jazz Journalist's Photos of Performers Captured a Golden Age of Music

April 25, 2006|Jon Thurber | Times Staff Writer

William P. Gottlieb, a jazz journalist whose photographic images became nothing less than an archive of a golden era of music and musicians, has died. He was 89.

Gottlieb died Sunday at his home in Great Neck, N.Y., of complications from a stroke he suffered late last week, according to his son, Ed.

From 1938 to 1948, Gottlieb created a remarkable body of photographs. Much of that decade he spent as a jazz writer for the Washington Post and for Down Beat magazine, but his work with a typewriter would take a back seat to the scenes he captured with a Speed Graphic, a Graflex and a Rolleiflex.

His black-and-white photographs of singer Billie Holiday, saxophonist Charlie Parker and guitarist Django Reinhardt as well as his 1948 color image of 52nd Street in New York City, which was then the home of most of the leading jazz clubs in the country, have been reproduced countless times over the ensuing decades.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday April 29, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 22 words Type of Material: Correction
Gottlieb obituary: The obituary for jazz journalist William P. Gottlieb in Tuesday's California section misspelled Phi Beta Kappa as Phi Betta Kappa.

His portraits of Holiday, Parker, Mildred Bailey and Jimmy Rushing were used by the U.S. Postal Service in 1994 for a series of stamps commemorating jazz performers. His book "The Golden Age of Jazz" is a perennial bestseller among aficionados of the music. The Library of Congress purchased his archive of 1,700 photographs in 1995.

"Gottlieb was not taking pictures; he was photographing a music," critic Whitney Balliett wrote in the New Yorker some years ago. "Again and again, he catches the precise moment when the musician's face is suffused with effort and emotion and beauty; the music is there ... Gottlieb stopped photographing jazz musicians in 1948. No one has surpassed him yet."

Gottlieb was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., on Feb. 28, 1917, and grew up in New Jersey. He studied economics at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa. and was elected Phi Betta Kappa.

According to his website, Gottlieb became interested in jazz while recuperating one summer from a severe case of trichinosis. Until that time, Gottlieb had been a fan of the somewhat docile sounds of Guy Lombardo's orchestra, but he was quickly won over by a steady diet of Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington recordings.

When he returned to classes in the fall, he took on responsibilities as a columnist and editor in chief of the monthly magazine the Lehigh Review. Gottlieb began running jazz reviews and jazz features in the now-defunct campus magazine. It was his first taste of music journalism.

In 1938, his last year at Lehigh, he found work at the Washington Post as an advertising salesman. Within months, he offered to write a jazz column for the paper's Sunday editions and was paid $10 a week. But Gottlieb thought jazz was also a visual medium, and when the Post balked at sending a photographer to cover performances, Gottlieb sold off some recordings from his personal collection and bought a Speed Graphic camera, film and flashbulbs.

While the Speed Graphic was the classic camera of the day, it was bulky and not particularly easy to operate. That being the case, Gottlieb was careful in what he shot and how many images he made in the smoke-filled jazz clubs on 52nd Street and at the clubs in Washington, D.C.

"I took photos as a writer, and I only took one or two at each session," he told the Washington Post some years ago. "I was there primarily to fill up my notebooks."

But through trial and error, he became one of the top-ranking photographers in jazz, joining names like Herman Leonard, William Claxton and Francis Wolff.

"Gottlieb was not only a great photographer, he captured a slice of American cultural life ... that turned out to be a very important time of transition in jazz, bridging the swing era and the bebop revolution," said Larry Appelbaum, a supervisor-sound engineer at the Library of Congress who is also the library's jazz specialist.

Gottlieb left the Post in 1941 and went to the University of Maryland as a graduate student in economics. He served in the Army Air Forces during World War II and was stationed stateside as a photography officer.

After the war, he went back to jazz journalism, this time at Down Beat magazine. Again, he was paid to write but took photographs on the side.

Of his widely reproduced portrait of Holiday taken at the Downbeat Club in 1948, Gottlieb once said: "She was at her most beautiful at that particular time, which was not too long after she came out of prison on a drug charge. She couldn't get any drugs or alcohol while she was incarcerated. She lost weight and came out looking gorgeous, and her voice was I think at its peak. I caught this close-up of her that you could really see the anguish that must have been coming out of her throat."

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