Try to pick the moment when jazz reached its apogee in America, and the summer of 1958 is not a bad choice. In New York's smokey Five Spot Cafe, pianist Thelonious Monk and his quartet were in the middle of an extended, overreaching engagement that would revolutionize the music forever. At the Newport Jazz Festival, Duke Ellington's fabled big band was being honored by other musicians, and it responded with a midnight set of its own that will live for the ages.
That is one reason Jean Bach's stirring one-hour documentary A Great Day in Harlem is such a treasure. The film grew out of a single jazz photograph--a kind of all-star class picture--taken by a young art director named Art Kane, on a summer day in 1958. When the call went out from Esquire magazine for jazz musicians to gather at a spot uptown, no one expected much response: The appointed hour, 10 a.m., was tender for such nighthawks, and the purpose was unclear.
Luckily, bassist Hinton and his wife, Mona, brought along their little 8-millimeter movie camera that day. That precious old footage, some archival performance clips and the interviews Bach conducted years later give the film its movement and texture--and enable her to explore the connections between jazz generations. Roy Eldridge's lifelong influence on Gillespie ("I didn't even own any Louis Armstrong records--just Roy's"). Rollins's debt to Hawkins. Trumpeter Art Farmer's awe of the jazz continuum.
Looking at the vanished ones in Kane's picture, Farmer says: "We don't think about people not being here. Lester Young is here. Coleman Hawkins. Roy Eldridge is here. They are in us and will always be alive."
Still, even since Bach conducted the interviews, two more of her subjects--Gillespie and Blakey--have died. And only a month ago, photographer Kane took his own life. These events render the original photograph, and the film, more bittersweet than ever. For those who care, who have always cared about this unsung music, they occasion a moment divided between pleasures recalled and exquisite heartbreak--like the loss of a profound love.