The Future in a 50-Year-Old Photograph

In the window of a small art supply store at the southwest corner of 8th and G streets in Capitol Hill, you’ll find a large framed print of A Great Day in Harlem, the legendary jazz photograph taken by Art Kane almost 50 years ago. A documentary about the photo describes the moment:

“It was a Summer day in New York City, 1958. A young photographer paced nervously in front of a Harlem brownstone. He had spread word that he hoped to take a picture for a special edition of Esquire magazine commemorating the golden age of jazz. Yet it was ten in the morning, long before most jazz players were up, and a meager turnout was feared. To everyone’s surprise, scores of musicians assembled to create what is now a world-famous, “class photograph” of America’s jazz legends.”

You don’t have to be a jazz aficionado or even know the historical context of the photo to be struck by it. To look at it and think, “Something was really going on here. Something important.” My hope is that anyone who visits DC Blogs will feel the same way about this site, even if they don’t blog themselves.

All of the musicians in the photograph were artists in a medium so dynamic that it changed by the week. They played solo, they collaborated, and they filled clubs big and small to hear each other stomp the stage and shake the walls. They inspired and pushed each other. Most of the time they got along, but sometimes they didn’t. They borrowed from the past to invent the future. And you know what else they did? They didn’t give a damn how anybody else thought they were supposed to play.

Sound familiar?

Invention and improvisation. Individuality. Throwing the rulebook out the window and throwing it hard. These things are every bit as key to bloggers today as they were to the musicians of jazz’s golden era.

Your blog is linked to this site, which means you’re already in the contemporary version of the “class photograph.” Some of us know your style. A few of us even know you personally. And so the challenge I put to you today is this:

Every so often in the coming months, let’s break from our style and shake up our blogs a little bit. Let’s invent. Let’s improvise. Let’s toss aside conventional notions of what blogs are and are not.

Charles Mingus (in the photo about halfway up the steps on the right, dark jacket and cigarette) once said, “Good jazz is when the leader jumps on the piano, waves his arms, and yells. Fine jazz is when a tenorman lifts his foot in the air. Great jazz is when he heaves a piercing note for 32 bars and collapses on his hands and knees. A pure genius of jazz is manifested when he and the rest of the orchestra run around the room while the rhythm section grimaces and dances around their instruments.”

It doesn’t matter what we write about or why. It doesn’t matter that we can’t tear the roof off with every post. (Hell, we shouldn’t even try to.) What matters is that in those moments we hit our groove and feel the urge, we get our ass up and run around the room while we do it.

If nothing else it’s good exercise, and in the process we just might accidentally create the future.