A Great Day in Harlem

A Great Day in Harlem

Produced by Jean Bach, Narration by Quincy Jones

(Capital Cities/ABC Video Publishing, Inc., P.O. Box 3815, Stamford, CT 06905-0815)

from Jazz Notes 7/4 1995

By W. Royal Stokes
Copyright © 1995, W. Royal Stokes

Perhaps the most surprising thing about the photograph of 57 jazz musicians in front of that Harlem brownstone in August 1958 is that it happened at all. It was Art Kane's first photograph and his assistant at first put the film into the camera upside down! Even more astonishing was that so many musicians showed up so early in the day. It is said that one of them insisted he did not realize that there were two ten o'clocks in a day!

This Oscar-nominated documentary is not only of the shoot itself and the circumstances surrounding the occasion, it is a mini-history of the art form and its practitioners up to that time. There are interview segments, some of them for a minute or so, some mere snippets, with the photo's surviving few, including Bud Freeman, Dizzy Gillespie, Milt Hinton, Gerry Mulligan, Horace Silver, Chubby Jackson, Sahib Shahab, Marian McPartland, Sonny Rollins, Max Kaminsky, Art Blakey, Buck Clayton, and Art Farmer.

Half of these have died since producer Jean Bach initiated the project in 1989. Their recollections of that day and reminiscences about long-departed fellow artists and friends are supplemented by the comments of, among others, Nat Hentoff, Mike Lipskin (who at the time was a student of Willie the Lion Smith, who was there but wandered off, leaving a space next to fellow-strider Luckey Roberts), Esquire art director Robert Benton (who had proposed the magazine's upcoming special issue on jazz for which the photograph was intended), and the photographer himself, who took his own life in February 1995.

Filmmakers working with limited and disparate materials can learn much from this model production. For example, its splicing together of oral testimony sometimes gives an impression of dialogue and the utilization of some of the more than a hundred frames shot by Kane and Lipskin (who packed his own camera) has the musicians virtually walking across the screen, one such sequence interrupted by a passing horse cart. Still more gripping is the interspersing of color footage that Mona Hinton shot with Milt's 8mm Keystone. You see Mary Lou Williams pulling up to the curb at the wheel of her car, musicians milling about greeting one another effusively as Kane heroically strives to marshal them onto the stairs, and the final dissolution of the throng when the shoot ends. Neatly inserted are appropriate performance clips (from the 1957 television showThe Sound of Jazz and other sources), riveting moments of Henry "Red" Allen, Pee Wee Russell, Willie the Lion Smith, Rex Stewart, Roy Eldridge, Thelonious Monk, Lester Young, Count Basie, Coleman Hawkins, Art Blakey, Sonny Greer, Charles Mingus, Joe Jones, Gene Krupa, Zutty Singleton, George Wettling, Maxine Sullivan, and Stuff Smith.

The film is instructive, deeply moving, witty, and just plain fun. One could take up pages quoting words of wisdom uttered by those who lead us through the hour, but I'll pick only several that especially grabbed me.

"The extraordinary thing about this picture is that there are so many innovators . . . . There isn't one person in this picture who wasn't a featured soloist, and all good guys, good friends, no jealous egomaniacs." (Bud Freeman)

"Each of these people in this shoot had an immediate presence, before they even picked up their horns." (Nat Hentoff)

"And many of them unsung during their lifetimes." (Sonny Rollins)

"They are in us and they will always be alive." (Art Farmer)

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