The photographs of Bill Gottlieb define the golden age of jazz with as much clarity and vivid detail as a Billie Holiday vocal or a Charlie Parker solo. According to critic Whitney Balliett, his indelible images "[catch] the precise moment when the musician's face is suffused with effort and emotion and beauty: the music is there." Born January 28, 1917, in Brooklyn, Gottlieb was raised in Bound Brook, NJ. While majoring in economics at Lehigh University, he contracted trichinosis from eating undercooked pork and during the long convalescence that followed he began listening to jazz with a religious fervor. Upon returning to Lehigh, Gottlieb began writing a jazz column for the school newspaper. After graduating, he accepted an advertising position with The Washington Post and in 1939 launched another jazz column, "Swing Sessions," in the venerable paper's Sunday edition. At first a staff photographer accompanied Gottlieb to local jazz clubs, but within weeks his editors cut back his budget, and he was forced to began snapping photos himself, using his own money to purchase a 3¼-inch by 4¼-inch Speed Graphic press camera. With film and flash bulbs so expensive and money so tight, Gottlieb snapped only three or four photos per session. Despite economic constraints and the absence of professional training, he nevertheless proved an extraordinarily intuitive and gifted photographer, and his luminous black-and-white images capture the power and majesty of his subjects in full. His most famous works document fleeting on-stage moments, among them Dizzy Gillespie making goo-goo eyes at Ella Fitzgerald, a young Miles Davis staring reverentially at fellow trumpeter Howard McGhee, and a heartbreakingly beautiful Billie Holiday channeling the sum of her anguish into a vocal turn.
Although Gottlieb left The Post in 1941 to earn his graduate degree in economics from the University of Maryland, he continued "Swing Session," additionally writing and photographing for the jazz magazine Down Beat. World War II interrupted his pursuits, and while serving in the sugar and fish divisions of the Office of Price Administration, he also tenured as an Army Air Forces photographer. Following the war Gottlieb joined the Down Beat staff full-time, and also published his work in The Record Changer, The Saturday Review, and Collier's. But with jazz in a commercial decline as the decade drew to a close, in 1949 he abandoned writing and photography to launch University Films, which produced educational shorts and slide programs for classroom use. Gottlieb also wrote a series of well-received children's books including 1954's Laddie the Superdog and 1956's Pal and Peter, and when publishing firm McGraw-Hill acquired University Films in 1969, he worked under their aegis for a decade. Gottlieb and son Steven were also ranked in the national Top Ten in father-son tennis team competition. At the behest of friend and neighbor Fred Bass, who owned Manhattan's famed Strand bookstore, he finally compiled his classic photos in 1979 in a volume titled The Golden Age of Jazz. As of this writing, the book is in its 13th printing, and vaulted Gottlieb into the ranks of jazz's elite photographers alongside Gjon Mili, Francis Wolff, and Herman Leonard. The Library of Congress later acquired all 1,700 of Gottlieb's photos "for posterity," and in 1994 four key images were selected for a collection of U.S. postage stamps spotlighting jazz immortals. After suffering a stroke, Gottlieb died at his home in Great Neck, NY, on April 23, 2006.