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A Great Day revisited 

Duke University will screen an acclaimed documentary celebrating jazz legends

Why in God's name would you leave the cozy confines of your modified brick ranch to go meet Jean Bach and see "A Great Day in Harlem," her Academy Award-nominated 1995 jazz documentary, at Duke this coming Monday? Why would you further delay watching your cache of TiVo'ed "American Idol" episodes to delve into the most impenetrable musical form of the 20th century?

The best answer is that, in order to enjoy Bach's documentary, you need not know how to play a flatted fifth. You need not know the meaning of contrapuntal or modal. You don't even need to know the identities of Pres, Bean and Bird. All you need to enjoy this film is an appreciation for a good story well-told by a cast with gobs of personality.

"It all started in the summer of 1958, at which time I was not a photographer." So says former Esquire magazine art director Art Kane at the film's start. Kane employed word-of-mouth and showed considerable chutzpah to gather and photograph 57 of the world's greatest jazz musicians on a Harlem stoop at 10:00 a.m. one August morning. Given the early hour and Kane's notoriously nocturnal subjects, this feat was nothing short of miraculous.

"Art had been in this meeting at Esquire," says filmmaker Bach via phone from her Greenwich Village home. "They wanted to take a picture of four titans of jazz, including Charlie Parker. Well, Art had to tell them Bird had been dead for three years. He said, 'Why just take a picture of four of them--I'd like to get all of them!' And he had enough nerve to try."

Kane and his green sidekicks began the day by loading the film into his camera then attempting to control what was the equivalent of a once-in-a-lifetime family reunion by shouting directions through a rolled-up New York Times. Eventually, all the musicians were herded onto the sidewalk and brownstone steps--that is, everyone except for stride piano pioneer Willie "The Lion" Smith, who'd wandered out of frame by the time the shot was taken--and Kane got his picture.

And what a picture it is, oozing with personality and by its very existence representing a shining piece of jazz history from a moment when the form was at its creative and commercial peak. It also represents a bridge between the music's generations, as the young turks (e.g., Charles Mingus, Sonny Rollins, Horace Silver) stood together with the old guard (Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Stuff Smith). In the film, Harlem native Rollins--not yet 28 in the picture--admits to having been star-struck by Coleman Hawkins as a kid. "I used to stand on his doorstep on 153rd Street and wait with an 8x10 glossy for him to come home so I could get his autograph."

There's Art Blakey, whose Jazz Messengers nurtured such young talents as Lee Morgan and Wynton Marsalis from the '50s, up until Blakey's death in 1990. There's Gerry Mulligan, who helped Miles Davis invent cool jazz with the 1949 recording "Birth of the Cool." There are five great drummers standing together--the photo's only segregation is by instrument--and there are no less than 12 neighborhood boys sitting on the curb next to Count Basie. "His health habits were very bad," says Bach, "so he tried to rest his legs by sitting down."

Dizzy Gillespie, the clown prince of jazz, is sticking his tongue out at his hero and mentor Roy Eldridge. Eldridge looked away just as the shot was taken and is the only one in the photo not looking at the camera. And there's quixotic pianist Thelonious Monk, who'd made Riverside Records publicist Bob Altschuler wait for more than an hour that morning in a taxicab with the meter running. "Bob found out later that Monk was upstairs selecting a costume that would be notable," Bach says. "Something that would stand out. He figured all the other guys would be wearing dark suits, so he chose a light-colored jacket." Ironically, Monk ended up next to Mary Lou Williams and Marian McPartland, both wearing light-colored dresses.

Where was Jean Bach on August 12, 1958, the day the famous picture was believed to be taken? After some thought, she remembers. "I was working for Edward L. Bernays, the nephew of Sigmund Freud who 'founded' public relations. My job was to write stories about Procter & Gamble products or something and then sign stars' names to them."

Despite her straight job, Bach was already very much a part of the jazz culture. In the 1930s, she'd written a society column for her hometown Chicago Herald American. The "old men" who ran the paper essentially let Bach cover whatever she wanted, and what she wanted was to cover the big jazz artists of the day. She later married Shorty Sherock, a jazz trumpeter for Gene Krupa and Tommy Dorsey, and got to know virtually everyone in the jazz community. "I got to be tight with Ellington in the mid-30s," she says without a trace of arrogance. "He used to call me up in the middle of the night when they were on the road. I knew all of them, even Miles."

"I've often had people ask me, 'Why isn't so-and-so in the photo?' And I'd tell them I don't know. I think Miles must have been in Germany when the picture was taken because I had a postcard from him around that time. I figured without checking that Ellington must have been on the road, as there were only three Ellingtonians in the picture and they were all out of the band at the time."

What possessed Bach to make a documentary about the famous picture? After all, just as Kane had never published a photo, Bach had never made a movie. "I guess it was idle hands," she says, noting that her long-running jazz radio show had been cancelled and her second husband had fallen ill and died. "When I learned that [bassist] Milt Hinton had Super 8 footage, I knew I had to do it. I thought, I'd better hurry up, because Blakey died soon after I talked to him and Dizzy was gone by the time the film came out. I started to feel like the Grim Reaper."

The grainy, colorful sway of the Super 8 footage, shot by Hinton's wife Mona, offers a striking visual contrast to the black-and-white close-ups from Kane's photograph. The documentary also features a choppy but appropriately impressionistic editing style that seems to mirror the very music it chronicles.

Shrugging off the film's success, Bach says, "I didn't know all the downsides of filmmaking, I just came up with a wonderful fluke. When I originally screened this for audiences, people had tears in their eyes--and they weren't even into jazz."

Bach says the decision to promote the movie on college campuses such as Duke University was part educational and part financial. "I haven't earned a dime off the movie," she says, "and the costs just keep on accumulating. So I was advised I really had to do something to get it into colleges. That's why I've been putting together a comprehensive DVD with a lot of extra scenes. Since I didn't know what I was doing at the time, I overshot like crazy."

Kane went on to become a famous music and fashion photographer, but he never lived to see how much Bach's film would increase his photograph's legend. On Valentine's Day 1994--after finding out the documentary had been nominated for an Oscar--Kane, who had privately battled manic-depression for years--shot himself with a handgun. Bach says Kane had gone off his medication shortly before his death.

Of course, few of the jazz giants are still alive today; many have passed on just since the documentary was made. (A somewhat morbid 1995 sequel taken for Life magazine pictured the 11 survivors from the original 57.) Nonetheless, when asked if looking at the photo now gives her a sad feeling, Bach refuses to take the bait. "I let Art Farmer do my feeling for me. He says they're not really dead. Everyone who's playing now derives what they do from the people in that photograph. Art Blakey alone must have had 50 or 100 great musicians in his band. I'm comfortable with them being gone, but I do miss them all dreadfully." EndBlock

Director Jean Bach will screen A Great Day in Harlem Monday, Feb. 23, at 6 p.m. at Duke's John Hope Franklin Center, room 240. Bach will then join a panel of local jazz authorities for a discussion. Admission is free.

  • Duke University will screen an acclaimed documentary celebrating jazz legends

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