Gordon Parks was seventeen when, in 1929, he ﬁrst met Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington in the back of the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis. A veteran of Harlem’s famed Cotton Club, Ellington was widely recognized as one of the jazz world’s leading ﬁgures—and he was in the process of effectively reinventing the genre by blending big-band orchestral arrangements with solo improvisation. By contrast, Parks was living on the streets, playing piano in ﬂophouses, hanging around nightclubs and pool halls, and skipping school. He was enthralled by Ellington’s style, grace, and musical genius.
Ellington became a hero for the young man. Decades later, in 1960, Parks was overjoyed by the opportunity to tour with Ellington’s band, calling it “a trip through paradise” (To Smile in Autumn, 1979). By then, Ellington was the foremost big-band leader, having recorded with John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, and Max Roach. In his photographs, Parks revealed his admiration for the musician’s pensive elegance, magnetic personality, and exceptional stage presence.
In 1957, Life assigned Gordon Parks to illustrate a recurring series of articles on crime in the United States. The editors wanted to examine not only rising rates of criminal misconduct but also the perceived lack of response to such activity. Parks embarked on a six-week journey that took him and a reporter, Henry Suydam, to the streets of New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. Many of Parks’ images are low-lit, with ﬁgures shown in shadow, reﬂected in mirrors or windows, and blurred in motion. Later Parks vividly described episodes from this assignment, most notably traveling with two ethically questionable Chicago policemen as they went on drug raids, and the chilling execution of convicted murderer Thomas L Johnston at San Quentin. After a preview of the series in the September 2 issue of Life, the ﬁrst full-length article was published on September 9. The introductory image in the article is of a man’s face in silhouette as he speaks into a radio transceiver while sitting in a car. The only light entering the frame is a soft white glow cut with blue and red circles on the rain-spotted windshield beyond the ﬁgure. This dark image typiﬁes the gloomy, grainy style of the entire series