Jean Bach had no filmmaking experience when she decided the most famous photograph in jazz history deserved a documentary. But Art Kane had no photography experience when he took the picture, and it turned out just fine. So did Bach’s 1994 movie A Great Day in Harlem, which remains at once an artifact of real significance to jazz and one of its interminable pleasures.
Bach wanted to know how, one day in 1958, Kane managed to wrangle nearly 60 of the best performers in the business, showmen and shamans all, onto a 125th Street stoop in Harlem at 10 in the morning — a formidable hardship for such nocturnal creatures, who, as one of them points out in the movie, tend not to recognize that a day could have two 10 o’clocks. Like Kane, Bach had a lot to coordinate: the many interviews (more than 60 hours’ worth); the rare and lively performance footage; the dynamic sequence of Kane’s illuminating alternate takes; and the narration, by Quincy Jones, of the whole event. Her strategy, obviously drawn from deep knowledge and affection for the music and its makers, was astute: get a solid feel for the changes and then improvise.
She did it in 60 funny, breezy, beautiful minutes–leaving an abundance of bonus material for this new two-disc set. One featurette looks at various “copycat photos,” the “Great Days” in other places, including Philadelphia, Kansas City, London, Vienna and Haarlem (Holland).
Of course, one look at Dizzy Gillespie sticking out his tongue at his one-time idol, Roy Eldridge, or at Count Basie plopped down on the curb with a dozen neighborhood kids, confirms the original as the best. As the nonpareil jazz writer Whitney Balliett puts it in the DVD liner notes, “It’s about the taking of the picture, and it’s also about mortality, loyalty, talent, musical beauty and the fact that jazz musicians tend to be the least pretentious artists on earth.”