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Remembering Bill Gottlieb '38

A picture of Gottlieb taken by his wife Delia as he hosts a jazz radio show at WINX in Washington, D.C. back in 1940.

William Gottlieb '38, a world-renowned jazz photographer, died on April 23 at his home in New York. He was 89.

In a career that spanned decades, Gottlieb photographed some of the greatest jazz musicians who ever lived while building a name for himself as one of the nation's foremost photographers.

Gottlieb was called "The Great Jazz Photographer" in a 1990 issue of Modern Photography, while the New Yorker once said, "Gottlieb stopped photographing jazz musicians in 1948. No one has surpassed him yet."

His career began, ironically, when he ate a piece of badly cooked pork at his Lehigh fraternity house just before going home for the summer. Gottlieb came down with trichinosis and ended up bed-bound for months. To while away his idle hours, Gottlieb listened to jazz albums with a high school friend and frequent visitor, Doc Bartle.

"By the time I recovered, I was hooked," Gottlieb told a reporter nearly 35 years later.

Gottlieb was born Feb. 28, 1917, in Brooklyn, N.Y. to Sam and Lena Gottlieb. His family moved to New Jersey when Gottlieb was four, but his mother died when he was in his teens. Gottlieb attended Lehigh University as an economics major and, due in large part to his experience as editor-in-chief of a monthly campus magazine and columnist for the weekly newspaper, earned a position at the Washington Post immediately after graduation. He quickly persuaded his editor to allow him to write a weekly jazz column.

In 1939, Gottlieb first used a camera, when he began taking photographs to illustrate his fledgling weekly jazz column, "Swing Session," in the Post. He was paid only for his writing, and not the photographs, so Gottlieb learned to shoot carefully as the film, flash bulbs, and cameras were expensive.

His dedication and experience paid off, as he later earned a position as an Air Force photo officer in World War II, and then an editor's position at Down Beat. He left the jazz scene in 1948 to produce educational films, later serving as president of University Films/McGraw-Hill. He also wrote and illustrated 16 books, one of which, the children's book Laddie the Superdog, sold more than one million copies.

Gottlieb retired from McGraw-Hill in 1979 and that same year, published his old jazz photographs as The Golden Age of Jazz. His images have since appeared on more than 350 record album and CD covers, in addition to numerous books, magazines, calendars, and documentaries. Please go online to learn more.

The National Portrait Gallery hosts some of Gottlieb's photographs, including one of Duke Ellington. In 1994, the U.S. Postal Service issued four postage stamps based on Gottlieb's photos of Billie Holiday, Jimmy Rushing, Mildred Bailey, and Charlie Parker. The Library of Congress purchased all 1,700 of Gottlieb's jazz images "for posterity," and Down Beat also presented him with its Lifetime Achievement Award in 1998.

Gottlieb is survived by his wife, Delia; children Barbara, Steven, Richard, and Edward; grandchildren Leah, Sara, Brian, Jason, Celia, and Noah; and great-grandchildren Evan, Lily, and Enzo.

Memorial contributions can be made in Gottlieb's memory to the Jazz Musician Emergency Fund, c/o Jazz Foundation of America, 3rd Floor, 322 West 48th St., New York, NY 10036.

Lehigh Alumni Bulletin Online
June 2006


Posted on Thursday, July 06, 2006

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