Jean Bach, 1918-2013

Jean BachThe death this week in New York of Jean Bach at 94 spurred memories of her role in the jazz community going back to the early 1940s. Ms. Bach was not a musician but an advocate whose enthusiasm for and understanding of the art endeared her to several generations of musicians. Her knowledge of the music and its creators made her unusual among other society figures who sometimes amused themselves by dabbling in the jazz scene. She was known for hosting in her home on Washington Mews in Greenwich Village parties that attracted admirers as varied as Sonny Rollins and Frank Sinatra. In a 1983 New Yorker magazine profile, Whitney Balliet quoted the singer and pianist Bobby Short:

“I was a baby just out of high school and what drew me to Jean was not only her love for Duke Ellington but the fact that she could sing note for note Ben Webster solos and Cootie Williams solos and Johnny Hodges solos. And — she knew my idol, Ivie Anderson.”

Short told Balliet she was, “by far the most elegant and beautiful and sharply intelligent person I had ever met.”

To the public, Jean Bach was best known as the producer of a film inspired by the photograph called “A Great Day in Harlem.” The following Rifftides piece appeared shortly after she revised and expanded the award-winning film.

A Great Day In Harlem: Longer And Better
Originally posted on Rifftides March 6, 2006

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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  1. says

    My wife Carol and I had the pleasure of being invited to one of Jean Bach’s famous parties in the early seventies. It was wall-to-wall people. Guests included Paul Desmond and Richard Rodney Bennett among others. It was a welcoming home get-together for Michel LeGrand and a very, very noisy party. Food was great.

    Al Haig supplied the music and on his break we introduced ourselves and mentioned that we were pianists, my wife classical and me jazz. He said he loved classical music and invited Carol to play something. She accepted willingly, sat down and played some Schumann (Robert). The loud talk suddenly came to a halt. Silence permeated the room for 8 minutes.

    Your pieces on Jean and Paul brought these wonderful memories to the forefront of my mind.

  2. says

    Watching “A Great Day In Harlem” was like being invited to a gigantic jazz party. All those wonderful, partly hilarious interviews, the “Super 8” film clips (in color!), and the reunion of the handful of survivors in front of the original stairs… watching all that was like being there.

    A nostalgic jazztime travel in the truest meaning of the word NOSTALGIA.

    My deep thanks to Jean Bach. Her invaluable work won’t be forgotten. R.I.P.

  3. Tom King says

    Thanks for that sensitive piece on Mrs Bach, and some years ago in putting me in touch with her when I was writing an article on The Baroness and her Bentley for our local Rolls-Royce & Bentley magazine.
    For a very quiet, sad, yet happy evening I watched both DVDs of “The Great Day in Harlem” and felt very far away, upside down here in New Zealand.

  4. Carol Friedman says

    Thank you Doug, for your eloquently stated take on Jean. For the past dozen years, and until just recently, she and I were frequently out on the town; mostly to hear jazz. Enter a club or concert hall with Jean, and the room would stare. Invariably,  a random stranger would approach,  whispering “Who is this woman?”  Jean was a great blonde beauty, still, in her nineties. But the visceral pull to her was more about her always impeccable, always soulful style. She was regal without a trace of pretense. And listening to music with Jean raised the bar because she heard every note and every nuance that took place on that bandstand. The musicians respected her as one of their own. 

    Jean had unremitting and laser radar—for music, fashion, books, people, places and politics; she had her own spot-on take on it all.  Jean Bach covered the waterfront. There was no one, then now or ever, who could hear what she heard, know what she knew, and look like she looked.