SWEET AS JAM
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.
The Prince of Darkness, Miles Dewey Davis, had entered a fertile, brooding middle period. John Coltrane was a year away from creating his "sheets of sound." Hard-boppers like Art Blakey and Cannonball Adderley had audiences poppin' their fingers.
The old masters were still with us, too. Louis Armstrong. Lester Young. Coleman Hawkins. Billie Holiday. Jimmy Rushing. Wherever jazz fans looked and listened that year, there was a style to suit them and a giant to play it. Especially in New York, the crucible of jazz.
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.
But 57 musicians showed up to schmooze and pose on the steps of a brownstone on 126th Street, representing the entire history of the complex, joyful music someone once characterized as "black sorrow wedded to Creole knowingness." Swing-era icons such as Count Basie and Rex Stewart joined bebop founders Monk and Dizzy Gillespie; stride pianist Willie "The Lion" Smith, with his cigar and his derby, talked with tenor giant Lester Young, in his trademark porkpie hat. Young Sonny Rollins gazed in awe at his idol, Coleman Hawkins. Charles Mingus, Johnny Griffin, Horace Silver, Milt Hinton, Gene Krupa, Sonny Greer, Red Allen, Gigi Gryce, Mary Lou Williams, Pee Wee Russell, Vic Dickenson and Stuff Smith were among those who filled out this extraordinary frame.
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.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.