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Jazz aficionados may be few in number—jazz accounts for less than 3 percent of domestic recording sales—but their passion for the music rivals the fervor of religious cultists. One of the most revered icons in jazz history is a photograph taken by Art Kane in August 1958 for Esquire. Kane assembled 57 musicians and posed them outside a brownstone on East 126th Street in Harlem. Four generations of jazz greats are represented, ranging from stride pianist Luckey Roberts to post-boppers Charles Mingus and Sonny Rollins. In a single, unparalleled image, Kane captured the living history of jazz.
Producer/director Jean Bach investigates the creation of this singular photograph and the artistic tradition it preserves in her hour-long, Oscar-nominated documentary, A Great Day in Harlem. Jazz enthusiasts—my name belongs on that list—will find it irresistible. Non-disciples will be either converted to the faith or left wondering what all the fuss is about.
Surprisingly, the image that provides the occasion for Bach’s film was Kane’s first photograph. An ad agency art director at the time, he talked Esquire graphics editor Robert Benton (who later co-scripted Bonnie and Clyde and directed the underrated Bad Company and the overrated Kramer vs. Kramer) into giving him the assignment. Invitations were sent out to Manhattan’s jazz community, which converged, groggy from the previous night’s gigs, at the unhip hour of 10 a.m. It turned out to be a boisterous, rather unruly gathering of the clan, with young musicians gazing awestruck at their idols and old-timers renewing friendships. Bassist Milt Hinton and his wife Mona brought along their 8-mm Keystone camera and shot color footage of the event. Bach prevailed upon Hinton to retrieve those reels, unseen for nearly four decades, from his cluttered basement, and he uses them—along with interview footage, archival musical sequences, and unused stills from Kane’s files—to recreate the spirit of that illustrious Harlem block party.
Editor Susan Peehl efficiently organizes this wealth of material, cutting from details of Kane’s photograph to newly shot reflections by musicians present that day (some of whom, including Art Blakey, Buck Clayton, Bud Freeman, and Dizzy Gillespie, have since died) to vintage performance footage. What emerges from this elegiac mosaic is the commemoration of a defining moment in the history of our country’s indigenous art form, just before its tradition was forever fractured by the ascension of free jazz. Within a few years, outrage and tumultuous avant-gardism would overwhelm the zest, cordiality, and hopeful vision of racial harmony expressed in the music—the spirit that drew me, as a wide-eyed teen-ager in the late ’50s, to Pittsburgh’s Hill District clubs, where I was welcomed, entertained, and introduced to other lives and worlds. Viewed from the cusp of the millennium, Kane’s celebratory photograph now can be recognized as an uncomprehended valediction.
For jazz lovers, a list of the participants in the photograph reads like a roll call of the immortals—Roy Eldridge, Rex Stewart, Mary Lou Williams, Count Basie, Oscar Pettiford, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Vic Dickenson, Red Allen, Pee Wee Russell, and Stuff Smith, all gone and yet, as flugelhornist Art Farmer observes, “They are in us and they will always be alive.” The survivors and other commentators share some radiant memories: Maxine Sullivan’s daughter recalls how her mother and Jimmy Rushing tried to breed their cocker spaniels; critic Nat Hentoff recollects the wild fluctuations of Charles Mingus’ weight and temperament; publicist Robert Altschuler exposes Thelonious Monk’s devious sartorial strategies for standing out in the crowd; Benny Golson sheepishly admits that the exquisite melody he once composed in a dream turned out to be the verse of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust.” Even viewers who know nothing about jazz should respond to the extraordinary warmth and individuality of these artists, so unlike today’s starchy, faceless, young neo-classicists.
Formally, A Great Day in Harlem hits a few clams. The talking-head, soundbite editing is sometimes frustrating (though nowhere near as grating as Ellen Weissbrod’s infuriatingly Cuisinarted Listen Up: The Lives Of Quincy Jones). I wish the film had more faith in its eloquent interviewees and allowed them to be a bit more expansive, instead of abruptly cutting away from them, sometimes in midsentence. (The musical sequences are similarly truncated; all 23 numbers included are brief fragments of longer performances.) I spotted one slipshod gaffe in the otherwise haunting closing sequence, a sweeping shot of the entire photograph with printed captions identifying all 57 faces. For some reason, the great swing trumpeter Emmett Berry is misidentified as “Barry.”
Bach makes herself unnecessarily present in the film. A radio producer, lifelong jazz fan (once married to big band trumpeter Shorty Sherrock), and celebrated Manhattan party-giver, she can’t resist getting into the act. (In the early ’80s, a friend brought me, uninvited, to one of Bach’s Village soirées, where you couldn’t swing a cat without hitting the likes of Norman Mailer, Mel Torme, and Blossom Dearie—and I couldn’t quite escape the chilly, questioning eye of the beautiful hostess.) Throughout the interviews, her questions are audible on the soundtrack; Rollins explicitly addresses her by name. Toward the end of the film, she makes several brief, gratuitous on-camera appearances. A more self-effacing filmmaker would have excised these narcissistic intrusions, but it’s churlish to judge her butting in too harshly. Without Bach’s energy, connections, and determination, there would have been no A Great Day in Harlem, a project she unknowingly completed at the eleventh hour. Last February, the month of the film’s premiere, Art Kane committed suicide.