Bill Crump: A Great Day in Harlem’s “Mystery Man”

The most iconic group photograph in the history of jazz, entitled “A Great Day in Harlem” was taken on August 12, 1958, in front of a brownstone at 17 East 126th St. The photographer was Art Kane who was on assignment from Esquire Magazine. The image was to become the centerpiece of the January 1959 “Golden Age of Jazz ” issue.  The “cast” for the picture included 57 jazz musicians, 56 of whom were either legends, soon-to-be legends or men and women with at least rather thick jazz resumes. The 57th musician was one decidedly non-legendary mystery man, a talented, yet journeyman musician who, decades after the image was taken, was still unknown to most jazz experts viewing the photo.   

In the GDIH photo above, might I direct you to the handsome gentleman in the middle of the second row wearing the dark glasses with the pencil-thin mustache, wearing a dark sport coat and an open-collared, light-colored shirt. This unknown man, prominently positioned in this world-famous photograph, is William J. Crump from Buffalo, N.Y.

Exactly how Bill Crump ended up in this photo appears, at first glance, to be a mystery and no researcher, perhaps for lack of interest, has yet to offer an explanation. In the planning of the photograph, contacts were made on behalf of Esquire to invite musicians who the editors felt were important to the cover story. Following those contacts, word-of-mouth between musicians took over. But somehow, of all the journeymen jazzmen in NYC who must have heard of the photoshoot, only Bill Crump, who had been in the City a relatively short time, joined the most distinguished jazz crowd ever to be assembled for a photograph.

Why would Crump, unknown to even the most informed members of the jazz public, the only musician supposedly without a resume, show up and stay for the photoshoot? The level of intimidation that some of the younger and/or lesser accomplished musicians felt as they turned the corner onto 126th St. and initially comprehended the who’s who of the jazz world was best expressed by the then young drummer Eddie Lock who remembered that his “knees were knocking…I almost fled.” Perhaps some did actually flee. But not William J. Crump.

Crump’s daughter, Diane Day Crump Richmond, confirms that at the time of the photo, Crump, who played tenor and alto sax, clarinet, flute and oboe, was working in the house bands at both the Savoy Ballroom and the Apollo Theater and it was quite likely that word of the meeting on 126th St. must have circulated amongst the musicians of both bands. One logical explanation is that Crump simply tagged along with other, more well-known band members.

Another rather peculiar aspect of the photograph is Crump’s positioning in the frame and how he got there. The musicians were not told by Art Kane where to stand – giving stage directions to 57 jazz musicians at 10 A.M. on a Saturday morning, which essentially is the middle of the night for them, is futile, as Kane himself discovered. Crump, who must have been well aware of the company he was keeping and might have considered it a triumph to simply appear anywhere in the picture, found himself in the photograph’s “sweet spot”- front and center, just a few feet from the Uber-legendary Coleman Hawkins. Was this prominent positioning purposeful on Crump’s part- perhaps to get as close as possible to fellow saxophonist Hawkins- or merely circumstance? By the time the group was asked to form on the steps for the picture, Crump had had more than ample time to survey his surroundings and the thought that he might have pushed his way past Hawkins or Stuff Smith who were directly in front of him or Jimmy Rushing who was “guarding” the left flank of the row, or Lester Young, Thelonious Monk or Sonny Rollins who he would encounter if he passed through on the right, was very unlikely. The irony here is that Crump’s prominent position in the picture made him an easy target for critics to trivialization him and criticize his very presence within that picture.

As if the presence of Crump in GDIH is not enough of a mystery, a second mystery involves the absence of Crump from a second picture taken by Art Kane that day.

We now know that after the musicians congregated in front of 17 126th Street and the image used in Esquire was then taken, they were then marched down the street to 52 126th Street. There they formed on the steps of a second brownstone and a second group picture was taken. Perhaps Art Kane and/or Robert Benton from Esquire who accompanied Kane to the session, were a bit nervous about the quality of the first image; this being the pre-digital days with no way to view the image until it was later developed, so they wanted a “safety” image with a different architectural backdrop.

What exactly is the mystery?

In informal still images and video taken by Milt and Mona Hinton, Scoville Brown, and others, when the musicians first gathered at the 17 126th St. site, we can clearly see that Bill Crump was present and ended up in the Esquire photo. We also know that Crump joined the pilgrimage across Madison Ave. to 52 126th St. because he appears in some of the informal photographs and video taken at 52. But in analyzing the formal photograph taken by Kane at 52, Bill Crump is nowhere to be seen. Why might Crump, who accompanied the group from 17 to 52 126th St., suddenly chose not to join the group and be photographed? After all, Crump had no idea which photograph would appear in Esquire.

ART KANE- HARLEM 1958 • HWAL

How do we explain this mystery within a mystery? It is very hard to even speculate about why Crump chose to be in one photograph but not the other. Did the reality suddenly hit him that perhaps he didn’t belong in the photograph? Did he finally have his “Eddie Lock” moment? Did he have a rehearsal or a matinee show at one of his gigs? Did nature call?

Since the photograph was published in Esquire the jazz community has puzzled over one big mystery surrounding Crump, now, 62 years later, it appears that we have two; both of which will probably never be completely solved. Art Kane has been dead for almost 25 years and only Sonny Rollins and Benny Golson remain of the group of 57. Ten years from now, conceivably there will nobody alive with any connection to that day in 1958. That would include members of both the Apollo and Savoy bands who might have information on Crump’s motives and movements that day.

Who exactly was Bill Crump?

In the 62 years since the photograph was taken those who have written about the image and have even bothered to mention Crump have used terms such as “mystery man” and “complete unknown” to describe him and “a total mystery” and “a complete fluke” to describe his participation in the project. Even the few historians who have looked into his background have not been kind to Crump. We found 4 different birth years listed; 1907, 1909, 1919, 1929, and the year of his passing as 1979, as well as “sometime in the late 1980s.” Sources also indicate that he was born in Okaloosa, Iowa, which does not exist (perhaps they meant Oskaloosa, Iowa which does) or maybe Okaloosa, FL.

What do we definitively know about Crump?

Census data as well as information provided by his daughter Diane confirms that he was born in Oskaloosa, Iowa in 1907 and spent his teenage years in Davenport, IA. In 1930 he is found in Defiance, Ohio, a member of a traveling band which also at one point included saxophonist and arranger Eddie Barefield. By 1932 he had relocated to Toledo, Ohio. He arrived in Buffalo, N.Y. around the mid-1930s.

Once in Buffalo, he played around town in the many local venues that featured swing music. His proficiency on 5 instruments and the lower payroll costs associated, no doubt made him very attractive to both the band leaders (for musical as well as payroll reasons) and the establishments’ proprietors, who could save money by hiring a smaller band. This versatility opened many doors for him and kept him gainfully employed throughout his career.

He was also active in the local Colored Musicians Union in Buffalo, local 533 (Buffalo had separate unions for black and white musicians up until a 1969 merger), and served as Vice-President from 1949 through 1952. He was also a member of Buffalo’s historic Colored Musicians’ Club. He went to New York City around 1957, settled in Brooklyn, and joined the NYC musicians’ union. He was hired for the Apollo house band by his former colleague with the Sam Cooke touring band, Reuben Phillips, who now led the Apollo band. He returned to Buffalo around 1960.

According to his daughter, Crump, who she characterized as a very modest man, rarely talked about the picture and quite possibly was unaware of the “who’s that guy” response from jazz fans and scholars that his presence in the picture had caused. There is also nothing to lead us to believe that being part of that photograph did anything to advance his career.

Another episode in Crump’s life which might shed some light on why he might not have felt at all out of place on that Saturday morning in Harlem, took place in Sherbrook, Quebec, Canada in the early 1960s. Crump had accepted a gig in Sherbrook and wife Marie and daughter Diane came up to visit him and found his gig to be at a little Latin themed establishment, playing Latin music. One might assume that a black jazz musician in Sherbrook, Quebec playing Latin music in a Latin themed club announcing “and our next selection is…” in Spanish to French-speaking customers would, most likely, feel comfortable under most any circumstances.

Was Crump really such an unknown?

Maybe he was to those viewing the GDIH photo over the past 62 years but certainly not to some of the musicians present. Photographic proof exists to support that thesis in the form of those still photos and 8mm videos taken that day. I have reviewed all the photographs in Jonathan Kane’s book “Art Kane Harlem 1958,” as well as frame by frame analysis of Jean Bach’s documentary “A Great Day in Harlem.” What I found clearly calls into question the prevailing opinion that Bill Crump’s presence was “a fluke” or that he was a “complete unknown.” The pictorial analysis also confirms many of Diane Crump’s memories of who Crump played with as well as who were some of his friends in the jazz community.

A Great Day in Harlem: behind Art Kane's classic 1958 jazz photograph |  Jazz, Classic jazz, Jazz artists

In one photo we see Crump conversing with Emmitt Berry. The connection: Berry was with Johnny Hodges from February 1951 to April 1954. Sometime during this period, Crump was in Hodges’ touring band. Crump and Berry can also both be traced to work in Toledo, Ohio in 1932- perhaps to the same music organization, but that has not been proven. Given the size of Toledo in 1932, we might assume that they at least knew of each other, if not been acquainted.

A Great Day in Harlem: Celebrating the 60th anniversary of one of America's  most iconic images | Creative Boom

In another photo, we see Crump in conversation with Berry, Vic Dickenson, Buck Clayton, and Rudy Powell. We know that Crump and Powell both played in the band of Erskine Hawkins around the same time.

Diane Crump had mentioned that Bill’s “best friend” in the Hodges band was somebody named “Lawrence.” I assumed perhaps it was Hodges bandmate in the Ellington band, Lawrence Brown, who had left Ellington with Hodges in 1951 and joined Hodges’ band.

This was mere speculation on my part until, upon reviewing Jean Bach’s GDIH documentary, I saw a short segment of the 8mm video which showed Lawrence Brown and Bill Crump in an animated conversation. The video also shows Crump shaking hands and conversing with arranger Ernie Wilkins.

It is obvious that each musician at GDIH had a circle of friends, a larger circle of acquaintances, and a still larger group of musicians who they knew only by name. Admittedly Crump’s “ circles” were rather small compared to many others who were present, but just in terms of those images that show him fraternizing with others, we must conclude that Crump was not an unknown to his fellow musicians and therefore not the completely unknown “photo-crasher” that some have made him out to be.

A great day in Harlem: Every frame from iconic 1958 shoot of jazz artists  published for first time | Daily Mail Online

By the mid-1960s, Crump felt it time to move on from Buffalo and he headed out to Las Vegas, where his daughter Diane, was a dancer at the Sands Hotel and Casino. The resume that Bill had accrued – experience playing in the house bands of both the Savoy and the Apollo in New York City, as well his proficiency on multiple instruments, would seem to make him a strong candidate for Vegas employment but the reality was very different.  In the mid-60s all the lounge bands in Las Vegas had been and were still segregated.  Diane Crump who arrived in Las Vegas in the mid-60s to dance in the Sands lounge shows does not recall seeing any Afro-American musicians in any of the lounge bands during the mid-1960s. She also recalls that when she arrived in Vegas that she was the only Afro-American dancer at any of the casinos.

But Crump persevered and with the assistance of some of the influential people that Diane knew at the Sands as well as musicians such as fellow Buffalo natives Don Menza and Joe Guercio, Crump became one of the first- if not the first- black musicians to integrate a lounge band in Las Vegas. This was approximately 5 years before segregation formally ended in 1971 in Las Vegas.

Diane Crump recalls that comedian Don Rickles, during his shows at the Sands would good-naturedly (if that term can ever be applied to Rickles) make some jokes at Crump’s expense over his presence as the only black musician in the band. This led to a friendship between Rickles and Crump. Diane remembers that Vegas performers such as Barbara Eden and Jimmy Dean became his friends and would ask about Bill Crump upon their arrival in town.

Yes, the color line in the casino lounge bands was broken, but true integration of Vegas was still 5 years away. Life could be lonely for a black musician in the mid-1960’s Las Vegas. Diane stated that her father would look forward to the times when the Eckstine or Basie bands came to Vegas so he could hang around with old friends. His friendship with the talented members of such well-recognized organizations further supports the reality that Crump was only an unknown to the public and not to all the fraternity of top-flight jazz musicians.

Diane Crump eventually moved on from Las Vegas and settled in Los Angeles in 1975. In 1976 Bill Crump left Vegas and followed his daughter there. The singer Nellie Lutcher, who was the first woman on the managing board of the Los Angeles chapter of the American Federation of Musicians, helped him obtain a very hard to get a union card. According to Diane Crump, her father very much enjoyed his time around the L.A. music scene, occasionally playing gigs backing Lutcher.

In 1979, Bill Crump passed away at the age of 71.

Despite the blank stares that the mention of the name Bill Crump might bring when discussing the GDIH photograph, it would be unfair to overlook the fact that, by any measure, Crump was a fine musician, talented enough to find gainful employment in NYC, Las Vegas and Los Angeles as well as being hired to tour with players the caliber of Johnny Hodges (playing 2nd alto), Sam Cooke, Billy Eckstine, Erskine Hawkins, Eddie Barefield, and Nellie Lutcher.

If you are truly documenting a specific “age” of jazz as Esquire set out to do, you will find that for every legend there are hundreds of talented jazz musicians pursuing their dreams, cashing their checks and moving on to the next gig. If, in one photograph, you are trying to depict the entire “Golden Age of Jazz” might there not be a role for a figure who represents the “everyman” of that “Golden” period? After all, one measure of a successful photograph is the ability to tell a complete story. The story depicted by Art Kane’s photograph that summer morning in 1958 would be less than complete without an individual who is representative of that group of musicians.

Perhaps after 62 years we now have the information necessary to more accurately assess who that “mystery guy” in the picture really is. In the approximately 1/250 of a second it took Art Kane’s camera shutter to click, he captured not just 56 jazz musicians and 1 “mystery man,” but instead, 56 jazz musicians and 1 talented “everyman.”

 Research assistant: Nancy Sheridan Siegel

Copyright- Steve H. Siegel; 2020; copyright protected; all rights reserved

(This article first appeared on Jazz Profiles Blog on Monday, July 20, 2020. Posted with permission.)

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