In 1958, on a summer morning in New York City, an inexperienced young photographer named Art Kane paced and worried outside the front of a brownstone on a quiet Harlem street. Kane, an art director who had never taken a professional photograph, had sent out word that he was assembling musicians for a one-time-only sessiona photograph that would pay tribute to the golden age of jazz by gathering together the music’s royalty. So far, so goodonly Kane had scheduled the session for 10 a.m., a time when most jazz musicians were recovering from the night before.
To Kane’s relief, the musicianswho included Count Basie, Art Blakey, Charles Mingus, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Gerry Mulligan, Marian McPartland and dozens morestarted pulling up, which led to another problem. Because of erratic schedules and incessant gigging, many of the musicians hadn’t seen each other in years, and Kane couldn’t get them to stop talking long enough to pose for the picture. After shouting and waving for minutes, Kane and an assistant finally cajoled the jazz greats into formation and quickly snapped a picture.
The result was historyin particular, a vibrant slice of jazz history recaptured in a delightful documentary called A Great Day in Harlem. A 1995 Academy Award nominee for best documentary, the film recounts the events leading to the taking of the photograph, interspersing home-movie footage with interviews, archival materialand, of course, a lot of great jazz. The film makes its Nashville premiere at Sarratt this Sunday and Monday night.
“I wanted to give a general feeling of joy,” says producer Jean Bach, who initiated the project in 1989 as a lifelong jazz enthusiast. “In most of these jazz movies, it’s always dark and raining, and the people are all strung out. For me, it was always flags flying and sun shining.”
Bach, a veteran radio producer who once penned a jazz column for the Chicago American in the 1940s, knew many of the photograph’s subjects, and she wondered how they had all come to appear at one time. But just as Kane had never shot a professional photograph, Bach had never assembled a movie. With the help of coproducer Matthew Seig, she compiled more than 50 hours of interviewsmany of them with subjects who were no easier to track down now than they were 38 years ago. She pursued an elusive Dizzy Gillespie to his dentist’s office. “He was the dentist to the stars,” recalls Bach, whose conversation supplies a virtual archive of encounters with the greatest names in jazz.
From all those hours of footage, Bach, Seig and editor Susan Peehl trimmed the movie to a lightning-paced 60 minutes. Among the highlights are candid photographs of the great Thelonious Monk (who wore a bizarre outfit to the shoot to make sure he’d be noticed), a montage of great jazz drummers, and the explanation of why Gillespie is sticking his tongue out at the legendary trumpeter Roy Eldridge.
And for all the good stuff that appears, Bach promises, a lot more exists that had to be cut. She’s now working on a follow-up film that will include, among other material, the real story behind the famous “spitball incident” that involved Gillespie, a spitball, an impeccably attired Cab Calloway, and a backstage fistfight at the birth of bebop. It should be worth seeing, if only to see Dizzy Gillespie smile devilishly and say, “I didn’t throw itthis time.”
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