Since the first time I saw the magnificent Great Day in Harlem photo that Art Kane took of 57 jazz musicians for Esquire magazine in 1958, I’ve loved group photos of musicians. The photographer’s black and white portrait of artists in their Sunday best—some serious, some grinning, some even conversing with one another—while neighborhood kids sit in front of them on the sidewalk is extraordinary, as is the cast of jazz musicians who participated, among them Count Basie, Art Blakey, Charles Mingus, Marian McPartland, Horace Silver, Lester Young, Dizzy Gillespie, Coleman Hawkins, Milt Hinton and at least a couple of Georgians, Atlanta-born pianist and composer Mary Lou Williams and Savannah-born saxophonist Sahib Shihab. Of the 57, only Benny Golson and Sonny Rollins are still living, but as All About Jazz contributor Ian Patterson wrote in 2013, it’s “a living family tree of the history of jazz.”
In 1992, when I was attending Valdosta State University and playing in a local band, I attempted my first nod to Art Kane’s masterpiece. I enlisted a few musicians to meet me downtown, we climbed aboard an empty train car and the resulting photo appeared on the cover of a xeroxed ‘zine I published called Down South Submarine. Not exactly Esquire, but it sure was fun and every few years when I run across the photo in a box, it takes me back to a wonderful time of friends and music.
Although I was only a witness at another big photo shoot, the day nevertheless had a major impact on me. On Oct. 1, 2000, an astounding 184 Georgia blues musicians gathered in Atlanta’s Piedmont Park for a portrait that was coordinated by Ronda Wenger, WRFG’s Richard “Bald Man” Forrester and the late photographer Donald Schellhaas for Living Blues magazine. I know the date well because I mustered up the courage to invite one of those musicians to a Van Gogh exhibit at the High Museum the following week and in July, we will celebrate 14 years of marriage.
Suffice to say, when my colleagues and I at Georgia Tourism began discussing the 2016 Georgia Travel Guide for the Year of Georgia Music with our partners and publishers at Atlanta Magazine, I heard opportunity knocking. The suggestion to pull together working musicians from all nine travel regions across the state for a group photo was met with enthusiasm and Atlanta Magazine’s Allison Entrekin and I began our ongoing email exchange. We were thrilled when Jason Thrasher, an Athens-based photographer who has shot portraits of many musicians over the years, agreed to take the photo. We were equally inspired by the gracious responses from the musicians.
On a gorgeous October morning at 10 a.m. —the same time the musicians gathered for A Day in Harlem—a diverse group of artists assembled at the Georgia Theatre in Athens. We had three generations of the McIntosh County Shouters—Carletha Sullivan, her daughter Carla Jordan and her grandson Brenton Jordan. We had Matthew Kaminski, the organist for the Atlanta Braves, along with two of Georgia’s ladies of jazz, Augusta’s Karen Gordon and Atlanta’s Gwen Hughes. Soul royalty was represented with Macon’s Otis Redding III and Keith Jenkins, longtime guitarist for James Brown and now the musical director for the James Brown Academy of Musik Pupils.
Adam Hayes, the classically trained Principal Trumpet with the Rome Symphony Orchestra sat alongside Neal Lucas, a self-taught blues singer/songwriter from Buena Vista. Columbus keyboardist and vocalist Lloyd Buchanan had a few days off from touring with Alabama Shakes and Atlanta’s Ricky McKinnie had a break from his busy schedule with the Blind Boys of Alabama, so both gentlemen were able to join us. Singer/songwriters Jason Kenney and CaroMia came down from the mountains of Dahlonega, Paris Luna slid in from Carrollton and musician and bandleader Bo Henry drove up from Albany.
Rapper Lloyd “KidSyc” Harold and singer/songwriter Jon Waits from Savannah’s music scene took part, as did Statesboro’s Chris Mitchell, singer, guitarist and owner of CMG Guitars. Veteran musician Robert Lee Coleman from Macon participated as did two members of his Night Owls band, guitarist Benjamin Cummings and harmonica player Bennie Mobley.
Athens, the host musical community, was well represented with folk musician and artist Art Rosenbaum, keyboardist Jason Alan Fuller, bassist Bryan J. Howard, vocalist Vanessa Briscoe Hay, bassist and producer David Barbe, singer/songwriters and multi-instrumentalists Randall Bramblett, Claire Campbell and Don Chambers and the youngest member of the crew, “Rock A’ Rolla” Sienna Chandler. There was excitement and positive energy in the air as introductions were made and old acquaintances re-connected.
Once Jason gave the word for everyone to move onto the stage, he took his place as conductor, placing the musicians, directing his crew and adjusting lighting. As he began shooting, the musicians became quiet, almost reverent, as Jason worked to captured an amazing group of individuals connected not only by profession but also by the deep musical roots of Georgia. Recently, I asked Jason Thrasher about the experience:
You’ve shot so many portraits of musicians and bands in your career. When you were first approached with the concept, what were some of your initial thoughts?
JT: My first thought was, “Hell yes! I can’t wait to see who we can pull together for this photograph!” Then my second thought was, “How am I going to light this many people?!” I knew this was an opportunity for me to make an iconic photograph. The Georgia Theatre is a special place for me and for so many artists in Georgia, and I’ve shot a lot of musicians there, so I wanted to make an epic image, but I also wanted it to be beautiful.
Since I lack any talent for visuals, I’d imagined musicians on risers, like the photos we take in kindergarten class, but when I walked in that morning, I was stunned by the gorgeous set and incredible lighting you had orchestrated. How did you envision what you wanted this to look like?
JT: Colm O’Reilly at the Georgia Theatre and the great staff there were really essential in making this all come together. It was funny because we had all talked about the shoot months in advance, but a few days before when I called the Theatre to check in, I found out that the staff thought we were shooting outside in front of the marquee. Once I connected with Colm though, it all came together. They pulled out all the scaffolding, ladders and stage risers, set me up with their lighting director, and basically put the welcome mat out for me, all the musicians, and everyone at Georgia Tourism and Atlanta Magazine. R.E.M’s studio is near the Theatre, so Dewitt Burton and Bertis Downs agreed to let us use the band’s road cases for the shoot.
Were you as pleasantly surprised as I was by the great wardrobe selections that everyone had made and did that provide further inspiration?
JT: I was so focused on the extra-wide set and complex lighting that I didn’t get to meet anyone until just a few minutes before we started lining everyone up on stage for the shoot. As we led everyone down to the stage, I started noticing all the amazing clothing and these killer red and pink suits that some of the musicians were wearing. I already had a few people in mind for certain spots, like Don Chambers, who I placed in a chair in the same spot where I had photographed him six years earlier in the burnt out ruins of the old Georgia Theatre, and Sienna Chandler, who I knew would do something cool if I put her up on the top of the scaffolding. As for the rest of the musicians, I placed them as they walked out on the stage wherever I could. I tried to balance out the clothing colors and patterns and tried to get people on all available levels. I’m not 100% certain of this, but I think that once everyone was placed, we didn’t have to move anyone around at all. It just laid itself out perfectly, like some kind of cosmic puzzle.
What was the hardest part of having that many people in a shot?
JT: There wasn’t really anything hard about it. I’ve shot groups before in a lot of different settings. But in this case, the people were each so interesting—the personalities—and it all just flowed. The whole experience was really amazing. Seeing my own team in action, having the Georgia Theatre staff helping out, R.E.M. jumping in like they always do, and getting to meet all these amazing musicians was a really cool experience. It was just another example of what make Athens, Georgia special. It’s all about community and making things happen here.
The portrait of 31 Georgia musicians is featured in the 2016 Georgia Travel Guide, which is available for free at ExploreGeorgia.org. Jason Thrasher’s exhibition, “Athens Potluck,” featuring portraits of Athens musicians, is currently on display at the Georgia Theatre.