Whether you're a college student trying to write a term paper or a self-described amateur filmmaker conceiving a jazz documentary, it's usually a good idea to narrow your subject's focus to something very specific, to zero in on a specific time and place. Jean Bach's Oscar-nominated documentary A Great Day in Harlem (1994) does just that. It's a 60-minute mini-feature about a couple of chaotic hours in front of a New York brownstone near the 125th Street Station in Harlem, where early one summer morning in 1958 many of the greatest jazz musicians of the century showed up. What was modestly envisioned as a neat little photo idea for Esquire quite accidentally resulted in the all-time great collisions of jazz talent, captured in photographs by the magazine's fledging photographer, Art Kane, and amateurs alike, many of them the musicians themselves, who had simply brought along their still and 8mm movie cameras.
It's a great idea for a documentary, though in the end it will appeal more to jazz aficionados than casual fans, and much less so to those unfamiliar with the form. This is because Bach opts to approach her subject matter by cramming in mini-portraits of all 57 artists in the photograph, this at the expense of putting the era and its key figures and trends into context for those less familiar with this great American art form. On one hand this is a great idea, because we not only catch glimpses of such familiar giants like Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie, and Lester Young, but also people like stride piano player Willie "The Lion" Smith, jazz violinist Stuff Smith, and clarinetist Pee Wee Russell, none of whom were known (at least by name) to this reviewer. In this sense the film succeeds in its mission, as these little profiles do make you want to head down to the nearest record store and find their CDs.
Eventually though, it all becomes something of a Big Blur. Hard-core fans will revel in the gossiping by one great jazz great about another, but more casual fans will need a scorecard to keep 'em straight. Still, the stories about Monk's vanity in carefully selecting a light-colored suit jacket knowing that way he'd stand out in the photo, or a weary Count Basie being joined on the curb by a group of kids intent on playing with his hat vividly help bring that day back to life.
Amusingly, one of the interviewees notes that since these guys (as well as several hugely important women, such as musician/arranger Mary Lou Williams) typically didn't go to bed until around sunrise, many were apparently quite discombobulated by the 10:00am meeting time, with one remarking they he didn't know there were "two 10 o'clocks" in a day.
Beyond capturing that fateful day, Bach's film likewise captures forever invaluable interviews with many jazz greats still alive in the early 1990s (a few, like Art Blakey, died before the film was released), though most have since passed away.
Video & Audio
Shot mostly on video, A Great Day in Harlem is presented in its original full frame format and looks okay given the now somewhat dated video technology. There are no subtitle or alternate audio options.
The 60-minute show is overwhelmed with supplements spread over two discs, almost all which integrate new interview with the now 87-year-old Bach (and collaborators Susan Peehl and Matthew Seig) with long outtakes shot mainly in the early-1990s. On Disc 1 is Stories from the Making of: A Great Day in Harlem, a 43-minute overview with info about the production mixed with revealing interview clips in some cases inexplicably left out of the final cut. Art Kane (10 minutes) is a prime example, as it features great interview footage of him in front of the same brownstone, boarded up, 35 years later. (This segment also discusses Kane's tragic and somewhat mysterious suicide just days after the film's Oscar nomination was announced.)
The Next Generation: Bill Charlap & Kenny Washington (25 minutes) mixes new interviews with archival ones, while Copycat Photos has Bach presenting photos inspired by the film and Kane's famous work: "A Great Day in Jersey," "A Great Day in Hip-Hop," etc.
Disc 2 offers the photo itself (why not in 16:9 format?) with the option to Explore its highlighted artists one-by-one. When one is selected, the DVD takes you to profiles of varying length (totaling more than two hours) using yet more footage dating back to the early and mid-1990s. Those not enamored of this interesting but cumbersome feature can access the profiles via an alphabetical list.
All these extras help flesh out the portraits of individual artists, but will likewise appeal mainly to aficionados.
Hard-core jazz fans won't want to miss A Great Day in Harlem or its feast of extras, though more casual fans will find it all a bit overwhelming. Still, it's a great concept for a movie and comes Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf - The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune and Taschen's forthcoming Cinema Nippon. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.