A Great Day In Harlem: Longer And Better

Art Kane’s 1958 photograph of fifty-eight musicians in front of and on the steps of a Harlem brownstone ran in Esquire magazine, which called it A Great Day In Harlem. It became one of the best known snapshots in the world, already famous for decades when Jean Bach made a film about it in 1994. Now, in her late eighties, she has expanded the film and brought the picture and its subjects even more renown. Ms. Bach, the brilliant film editor Susan Peehl and director Matthew Seig added nearly four hours of new material to the production. Like the picture that inspired it, the film is not a polished product. It is a rough and ready masterpiece that makes the most of the materials at hand, rather like a jam session solo.

At the IAJE meeting in January, Ms. Bach gave me a copy of the updated two-DVD release of A Great Day In Harlem. Over this past weekend, I finished watching it. One of its most appealing qualities is that, after the viewer has seen the main body of the production, he can dip into the nearly four hours of new features when its convenient, without fear of losing continuity. Navigation is easy by means of menu features that give the option of using alphabetical listings or—for computer users—browsing through the Kane photo with arrow keys and highlighting individual musicians to bring up their stories.

Some of the new segments are interviews with the musicians from the photo who were still alive when the film was being made, among them Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Rollins, Art Farmer, Bud Freeman, Horace Silver and Max Kaminsky. Most of the others in the picture were gone by then, including Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Red Allen, Pee Wee Russell, Rex Stewart, Thelonious Monk, Roy Eldridge, Count Basie and Sonny Greer. Their surviving colleagues—and sometimes the vital and knowledgeable Jean Bach herself—tell their stories, all fifty-eight of them. In their recollections, Chubby Jackson is effusive, Sonny Rollins thoughtful and writer Nat Hentoff savvy and often amused.

The cumulative effect, whether or not the viewer is a hard-core jazz fan, is a sense of the yeastiness of what may have been the last golden era of jazz. Pioneers of the form were still at work, sometimes on the bandstand with musicians a generation or two, or three, younger. A natural companion to A Great Day In Harlem, the 1957 CBS television program The Sound Of Jazz, illustrates the generational compatibility, respect and understanding that marked the New York jazz scene through the fifties and into the early sixties. Ms. Bach’s film draws from the kinescope of that landmark show for scenes, for instance, of Count Basie listening raptly to Thelonious Monk, of Gerry Mulligan playing with Ben Webster and Rex Stewart.

Bill Charlap and Kenny Washington, who didn’t exist when Kane took the picture, reflect on the legacy of their predecessors in an interview highlighted by Washington’s uncanny impression of the character and mannerisms of Jo Jones, an idol of Washington and virtually all other drummers. The new DVD set also includes a mini-documentary about the making of the film, with hilarious sidebars about the travails of fund-raising, locating musicians and trying to coax accurate information from failing memories. Ms. Bach gracefully and affectionately corrects Art Blakey’s confident representations of facts that are clearly wrong, including his claim to have owned the brownstone that was the setting for the photograph. There is a brief feature about Kane, who committed suicide in the 1990s, apparently because of health worries. In addition, Jean Bach guides the viewer through an exhibit of the many “Great Day” photo imitations; A Great Day In Philadelphia—San Diego—New Jersey—Haarlem (Netherlands), et al—even A Great Day In Hip-Hop.

The film is informative, entertaining and uplifting. Whatever misgivings you may have about where jazz is headed, A Great Day In Harlem is almost sure to make you happy about where it has been.

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