Judge Joe Armenio never threw a spitball at Cab Calloway.
"The picture became a movie. It was a still but it was really a living thing."
In August 1958, Art Kane took a photograph for Esquire of 57 (mostly major) jazz musicians standing near a Harlem brownstone. The story of the photograph contains a few oddities and minor miracles, not the least of which is the mystery of how Kane managed to shepherd such a large number of notoriously unpunctual and night-owlish artists to one place at 10 o'clock in the morning. The picture was also Kane's first assignment in what would become a long career as a photographer; at the time, he was an art designer. His boss for the job also happened to be Robert Benton, who, of course, would go on to a major career as Hollywood screenwriter (Bonnie and Clyde) and director (Kramer vs. Kramer).
The picture was taken at an unusually fruitful time in jazz history, when New Orleans and swing legends moved both socially and musically with the most arcane of modernists (part of the genius of the photograph is that it embraces a vision of jazz which includes both Chubby Jackson and Charles Mingus, Red Allen and Art Farmer). It's a terrific picture (I have a poster of it on my living room wall), creating a sense of spontaneity and informality, capturing the personalities of many of the outsized figures involved: Thelonious Monk stands mysteriously at attention; Charles Mingus lets a menacing cigarette droop from his lip; Dizzy Gillespie sticks out his tongue, and Count Basie lounges and smiles with the neighborhood kids.
Facts of the Case
Jean Bach's 1994 documentary, which runs about an hour, tries to be a lot of things at once. She tells the story of the picture-taking process itself from idea to execution, featuring interviews with Kane, Benton, and Kane's assistant Steve Frankfurt (although the question of how and why all these guys showed up isn't really dealt with; I guess they liked the idea of being in Esquire). The film also features interviews with a number of the artists themselves, the most prominent of which are Gillespie, Sonny Rollins, and Art Blakey. They talk about the picture itself and share stories about their colleagues. Visuals consist mostly of archival photos and motion picture footage of the artists, and various stills from the day of the shoot, to which bassist Milt Hinton and jazz buff Mike Lipkin brought cameras (Hinton is a noted photographer himself. He also brought an 8mm movie camera to the shoot, and we see a little of his footage, too). A Great Day in Harlem is frustrating in that it skims genially along the surface of a number of issues without ever engaging any of them; the film itself is almost an afterthought in Image's new two-DVD release, which features about four hours of extras, most of which share the virtues and flaws of the original feature.
Jean Bach herself is very prominent in the extras, telling stories about the making of the film and sharing insights about the artists; she comes across as a rather proper but hip and slightly goofy older lady. She often appears as a minor character in her own stories, hobnobbing with jazz artists, and it's frustrating that we never get a concrete sense of who she is. One can piece together a biography of sorts from the stories she tells; she's a radio producer, journalist, and jazz buff, one of a group of affluent, progressive whites who served as impresarios for the music, beginning in the 1950s (the Newport Jazz Festival, for example, was largely the result of their initiative). She's not a filmmaker and much of the credit for cobbling her interviews into a movie must go to producer Matthew Seig and editor Susan Peehl.
It's not surprising, then, that A Great Day in Harlem is a dilettante's film, flitting from subject to subject, never quite sure where it wants to land. One of the nice things about the film is its willingness to linger on artists such as Vic Dickinson and Stuff Smith, musicians beloved by buffs but largely forgotten otherwise. It's also nice to see interviews with aging giants such as Blakey, Gillespie, and Hinton, who have all died since the film was made; any surviving material from them is precious. So there are plenty of pleasures to be had here, but the effect is mostly to make one want more: five minutes of Thelonious Monk stories, for example, is just an appetizer for one of the several fine documentaries that have been made about the man. The performance footage used as background, much of which comes from the 1957 CBS special The Sound of Jazz, is also great but is doled out in little snippets which make one want to turn off the DVD player and listen to some old albums. Since time is so short, we also don't get much musical analysis and, in the end, the enterprise seems loving, fun, and valuable but distinctly underwhelming.
The extras, unfortunately, while copious, are more of the same.
"Stories From the Making of A Great Day in Harlem": In this 43-minute featurette, Bach, Seig, and Peehl reflect on the origins and conception of the film, and Bach shares some behind-the-scenes stories from her interviews with artists, including making gentle fun of their eccentricities and tendencies toward rambling (especially Art Blakey and saxophonist Bed Freeman). We also see footage from the interviews which was not used in the film.
"Art Kane": This 10-minute segment is mostly a Bach monologue, as she shares her recollections of Kane, who suffered from bipolar disorder and committed suicide at some point since A Great Day in Harlem was made (I couldn't find an exact date; the official site devoted to his art does not mention his death). Also included is interview footage with Kane that does not appear in the original film, in which he talks about his artistic philosophy and the origins of his desire to be an artist.
"The Next Generation: Bill Charlap and Kenny Washington": An interview between Bach, pianist Charlap, and drummer Washington, younger musicians who grew up in a jazz milieu and had the opportunity to know several of the artists in the photo, spends most of its 25 minutes with the two men waxing effusive about their elders and is not especially interesting; they're so eager to be respectful that the whole thing is rather substanceless, although Washington tells a nicely strange story about his encounters with an aging Jo Jones.
"The Copycat Photos": Bach shows us a number of photos which have been taken since the release of A Great Day in Harlem, most of which are variations on the concept of the original. Photos have been taken of jazz musicians in various cities both in the States and abroad, and of blues, doo-wop, classical, and hip-hop musicians.
"Explore the Photo": All of the extras listed above are on the first disc; the second disc consists entirely of this feature, which contains brief profiles of all 57 musicians in the photo, plus profiles of pianist Willie "The Lion" Smith, who was present but wandered out of frame as the picture was being taken, and Taft Jordan Jr., the son of the trumpeter: of the children present in the photo, he was the only one to be identified. One can access the profiles either by navigating through the photo and highlighting your chosen artist, or through an alphabetical list.
Most of these profiles run about three minutes, although some are as short as one minute and Dizzy Gillespie's runs to seven. At their worst, they consist of Bach giving biographical information and reading stories about the subjects from books (why not just include a bibliography?). At their best, they contain interview footage which wasn't used for the original film; for the most well-known figures, such as Gillespie, Bach dispenses with the biography and focuses on one or two anecdotes (Milt Hinton talks about the spitball-throwing incident which got Dizzy kicked out of Cab Calloway's band). In the end, these profiles become a little wearying in their relentless bland affability. This seems like an almost inevitable difficulty in a project such as this, in which an admirable respect and kindness prevent an interviewer from delving too deeply into the lives and opinions of her subjects. Still, for this viewer, hearing 59 separate times that such-and-such was an excellent person and a fine musician, with no deeper aesthetic, psychological, or political exploration, got awfully tiresome.
As a jazz fan, I'm glad that this film exists and that people enjoy it; jazz seems to be more respected than actually listened to, and if A Great Day in Harlem inspires anyone to pick up an Art Blakey album, I suppose it's done its job. It's probably best for jazz novices, who will come away from it with new knowledge of 57 separate artists in widely varying styles (58 if you count Willie the Lion). In the end, A Great Day in Harlem does open up the world of jazz, even if it doesn't penetrate too deeply into it.
How could I convict any of these cool cats? Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Image Entertainment
• "Stories From the Making of A Great Day in Harlem"
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