American culture is unique in two ways that pertain to the excellent documentary A Great Day in Harlem. First, America is the birthplace of jazz. Jazz is really the first true American music. The blues sprang from spirituals and work songs carried from Africa, rock from the blues, and today's pop explosion from Swedish bubblegum. Jazz, however, developed over time and through the innovations of a series of brilliant Americans like Scott Joplin, Duke Ellington, and Miles Davis.
Secondly, America is a young country, which means that many significant developments of our nation happened recently enough that there are still individuals with first-person stories to tell. This second point, sadly, is starting to fade as an older generation disappears. A Great Day in Harlem functions as much as an historical document as it does a piece of entertainment.
A Great Day in Harlem recounts an August morning in 1958 when over fifty of the top names in jazz gathered on a stoop on New York's storied 125th street for a family portrait of sorts. What makes Great Day so compelling is that it is constructed entirely of interviews with many of those musicians, recorded some forty years later. The men and women interviewed are still sharp and funny, their memories astonishingly clear. The list of musicians who appear in the documentary is extremely impressive: Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Rollins, Art Blakey, Milt Hinton, and Art Farmer, plus many more. They all express a great deal of pleasure in discussing their younger, mischievous days. Steve Frankfurt, who served as photo assistant on the shoot recalls one musician, on receiving the call time, telling him "I didn't know that there were two ten o'clocks in the day!"
Since it consists entirely of interviews (Quincy Jones contributes a narration that only lasts through the opening credits), the film takes all of its cues from the personalities of the musicians and when the personalities are this dynamic, the film becomes entirely engaging. From Dizzy Gillespie's famously disjointed storytelling to Hank Jones pointing out which musicians have gained weight since the photo, these are some of the most dynamic, clever artists you will ever see. Plus, since the film is filled with generous amounts of archival performance footage, it gives you a good chance to appreciate these performers in their prime. They were so sharp, well-dressed, and amazingly talented that they put today's shallow chart-busters to shame.
A Great Day in Harlem is expertly edited. It takes its rhythm from the quick-changing style of be-bop, cutting from one speaker to another mid-sentence and leaving stories unfinished, only to return later. This doesn't feel unnecessary. In fact, it adds to the film greatly, creating an atmosphere where anything can happen and everything is interconnected.
Great Day definitely gives you the impression that the historic photo was the culmination of a movement. When Art Kane, who was an art director at the time, was chosen to shoot the photo for a special jazz issue of Esquire, it seemed unlikely that it could even come off. Hearing about his efforts to try to control the crowd of talkative artists is great and many of the images, like the iconic Count Basie finally taking a rest on the curb only to be swarmed by little kids, will stay with you forever.
The interviews are shot on video and look sharp. The archival footage mostly looks great for its age.
The sound is terrific. Interviews are clear and easily understood and all the music sounds great.
There is only one extra on A Great Day in Harlem, but it is a great one. Rather than leave all of the unused footage in a box somewhere director Jean Bach fashioned an entirely different film from interviews with Dizzy Gillespie and others on a separate topic: The infamous prank that got Dizzy fired from Cab Calloway's legendary band. The film, The Spitball Story, is funny and entertaining. Again, Dizzy has always been a crack-up and any chance to see him talk about his fascinating past is worthwhile.
Although I'm sure that rights issues would prevent it, the perfect complement to A Great Day in Harlem would have been a nice collection of theatrical jazz shorts of the variety that turn up on those Jazz Rhapsody video compilations. They are so great and hopefully will see their way to DVD at some point.
Even without the historical significance, A Great Day in Harlem would be extremely entertaining. When you consider that these stories will be gone one day, it becomes essential. Many of the artists had passed away by the time the film was made, and some have since, including photographer Kane and Dizzy Gillespie himself. Without films like this our cultural heritage might not be remembered forever, but A Great Day in Harlem delights in doing its part to preserve it.
Other Jazz reviews:
Hi De Ho / The Duke is Tops