World premiering at the Playboy Jazz Film Festival and opening Friday at Laemmle's Monica, Jean Bach
's excellent documentary illuminates the history and lasting legacy of a "magic moment" in 1958 -- when "Esquire"'s Art Kane photographed 60 of jazz music's "big dogs" one summer morning in Harlem.
A treat for jazz aficionados and a dandy historical jam session for the curious, "A Great Day in Harlem" combines recent interviews with those subjects in the photo still alive, liberal use of the famous black-and-white still and others taken by Kane that day, home movie footage shot by Mona and Milt Hinton
, and great film clips of performances to support the verbal storytelling.
Starting with Kane's account of how the photograph came about, with support from then-Esquire art director Robert Benton, Bach weaves together the memories of the late Dizzy Gillespie
plus Sonny Rollins
, Art Farmer
and many others -- including Taft Jordan Jr., one of the now-grown boys seated on the curb with Count Basie
-- and thoroughly recounts the events of the "Great Day".
Amazingly, it was Kane's first pro gig as a photog and the early-morning session resembled a social gathering until everything came together just right. Controlling the group was "near impossible" and Kane used a rolled-up newspaper as a megaphone. His assistant did not even know how to load film.
But the moment is undeniably powerful, as the group stands on the steps of a 125th Street tenement and sidewalk with locals looking on. The mood seems casual and the composition unpretentious, evoking but not overstating the subjects' "hard life surrendered to art."
Bach and co-writers Susan Peehl
and Matthew Seig
wisely follow the leads of their talkative subjects. Stories about those in the photo no longer among the living are both laudatory and personal.
The soundtrack is heavenly and supports Art Blakey
's conclusion that these jazz greats were "literary figures," using drums, trombones, trumpets and saxophones to imaginatively capture the experience of living.
A GREAT DAY IN HARLEM
A Jean Bach
New York Foundation for the Arts
Producer Jean Bach
Co-producer Matthew Seig
Writers Jean Bach
, Susan Peehl
, Matthew Seig
Director of photography Steve Petropoulos
Editor Susan Peehl
Narrator Quincy Jones
With Dizzy Gillespie
, Sonny Rollins
, Art Farmer
, Marian McPartland
, Mona Hinton
, Robert Benton, Horace Silver
, Art Blakey
Running time -- 60 minutes
No MPAA Rating
(c) The Hollywood Reporter