A Great Day in Harlem Evokes the Jazz Age
Comer, Brooke, American Cinematographer
Jean Bach's hour-long documentary A Great Day in Harlem, slated for a theatrical release this spring, recaptures a lost time in jazz history. Bach, a former journalist and radio producer, was an insider on the jazz circuit during its golden age and has counted among her friends Duke Ellington, Bobby Short, Billy Strayhorn, Lena Horn and Artie Shaw. New Yorker jazz critic Whitney Balliett devoted an entire chapter to her ("The Fan") in his book Barney, Bradley and Max; 16 Portraits in Jazz. "That sums up my role in this film," says Bach. "I'm the enthusiast."
Bach's film was inspired by a 1958 photo for Esquire magazine by Art Kane featuring a gathering of jazz legends. Kane's shoot was an ambitious project, especially considering that it was his first professional photograph. Then a young magazine art director, he assembled the group by putting the word out on the street for all New York jazz musicians to meet him in front of a certain Harlem brownstone at 10:00 a.m. one summer morning. Dizzy Gillespie, Art Blakey, Marion McPartland, Milt Hinton, Gene Krupa, Art Farmer, Sonny Rollins, Count Basie, and Thelonius Monk were among the crowd that appeared in the photo. Beginning in 1989, Bach interviewed as many of the surviving group as she could find; the result is A Great Day in Harlem.
Bach decided to make her film while talking to Milt Hinton about his memories of the day the photo was taken. He told her he'd had his wife Mona shoot the gathering with an 8mm movie camera. "A light bulb went on in my head," says the producer. "That's when I decided to make the film."
Bach considers A Great Day in Harlem a tribute to her husband, TV producer Bob Bach. She originally chose to shoot the memorial on videotape. Later, when she realized the potential that the big screen offers, she decided to transfer the 60-minute tape to film. She plans eventually to use the hours of tape that didn't make it into the film for an educational television series.
Steve Petropoulos, a cameraman with a background in documentaries and news for NBC and ABC, was chosen to shoot interview segments. Co-producer Matthew Seig, says Bach, "is the brains of the show." Editor Susan Peehl spent a year and a half making notes under pictures, "then braiding all the information together," says Bach. "I had overshot, and had some 30 hours worth of tape."
Bach began to work on her project before she even saw Milt Hinton's 8mm movie. "I felt like a detective," Bach recalls. "I was constantly trying to find clues and track down elusive musicians. In the case of one man, I was always one woman behind. Every place I called, a woman would tell me he'd left."
In the photo, a line of children sit on the curb in front of the musicians. Bach placed an ad in the Amsterdam News, an African-American newspaper in Manhattan, asking anyone who'd been in the photo to contact her. …