Thursday, August 30, 2018

Neglected Gem: A Great Day in Harlem

Art Kane's famous 1958 photo for Esquire Magazine. (Photo: Getty)

Jean Bach’s A Great Day in Harlem centers on a legendary photo that appeared in Esquire Magazine, in a special 1958 issue on jazz, the brainchild of the new graphics editor (and future director and screenwriter) Robert Benton. A young art director named Art Kane came up with the idea of gathering every jazz musician who could be rounded up in front of a Harlem brownstone, underneath the 125th Street railroad station, and pitched it successfully to Benton. And somehow, at ten a.m., an hour when most respectable jazzmen are fast asleep, dozens of them showed up, huddling in groups, happy for the chance to socialize with their buddies. The only trick, relate Kane and his assistant, Steve Frankfurt, was to get them to shut up and look at the camera.

Using photos and black-and-white Super-8 footage, Bach’s movie recreates this historic shoot, and the results are wondrous. But that’s just a small section of the movie, which lasts for a packed, exhilarating sixty minutes. The handful of surviving camera subjects, as well as other musicians who felt the effects of their genius and the sons and daughters of the musicians in the photo, examine it and talk about them. Bach uses their anecdotes, and the lines of influence they draw from the bop generation of the post-World War II years to the youngsters just starting out in the mid-fifties, to introduce footage of these men and women, many of them long gone. And that footage is as thrilling now as it must have been back when it was shot.

Bach’s movie is a tribute to the power and beauty of legacy, and its loose, invisible structure echoes both the way the photo session came about – seemingly by accident, like one impromptu party – and the jazz form itself. You can’t imagine any other way the picture could have been made and still give off the joyous vibes it does. It’s one hour of heaven. There are wonderful stories about vain Thelonious Monk, who showed up late and meticulously dressed so he could be the star of the shoot, and about how a few of the kids from the neighborhood got into the photo. (Taft Jordan, Jr., who was one of them, tells this particular story.) The interviewees grin and low as they reminisce about the musicians they most admire – as when Bud Freeman says of Count Basie, “Everything he did swung”; or when Marian McPartland eulogizes the only other woman in the picture, Mary Lou Williams, a magnificent, exotic face amid the gathered throng who wrote innovative, cutting-edge arrangements for Andy Kirk’s band; or when Sonny Rollins recalls how, as a boy, he idolized Coleman Hawkins. (It was Hawkins and Lester Young who inspired him to learn the tenor sax.) And when these performers aren’t warming up to their memories of their mentors, we get to see glimpses of what made them legends. We hear Roy Eldridge on trumpet, reaching for notes as high as stars, and Willie “The Lion” Smith playing stride piano, and Jo Jones, who seems to be talking to his drums, courting them. This extraordinarily openhearted documentary is a one-of-a-kind movie about a one-of-a-kind event.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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