"A Great Day in Harlem," which opens today at the Charles, is the first movie about a photograph since "Blow Up," and it's not nearly as nasty. But it's much hipper.
The movie takes off from the fact that in 1958, some bright boys at Esquire magazine decided to take a picture of the empire of jazz. That is, of all the meaningful jazz musicians of the age -- most of whom congregated in the then burgeoning New York jazz club scene, turning Gotham into what appeared to be a jazz Camelot, the last bright and shining place before rock went corporate and blew it all away.
So Esquire's art director Robert Benton (yes, inventor of the Dubious Achievement awards and later the famous movie director of "Places in the Heart"!) and a free-lance art director named Art Kane (yes, later the famous photographer) sent out invitations high and low asking anybody who had been, was or would be anyone in jazz to show up at 10 in the morning in front of a brownstone on 126th Street. Though 10 was a bit early for these cats, who regularly jammed until 4 a.m. in the joints along 52nd street, they showed up -- at least 57 of them did -- for what became one of the most remarkable photograph ever taken.
Among those present: Dizzy Gillespie, Charles Mingus, Thelonius Monk, Marian McPartland, Maxine Sullivan, Art Blakey, Milt Hinton, Count Basie, Sonny Rollins, Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young. Only Miles Davis was absent without explanation.
"A Great Day in Harlem" uses that gathering as a platform to let old jazzmen reminisce about a very special time and place, for of course the gathering became a reunion far more meaningful to the artists than to the people who would see the photo two months later in Esquire's special jazz issue. It's not particularly rigorous, and a lot of tough questions go unasked, but it's very sweet.
The driving figure behind the film is Jean Bach, a radio producer and jazz fan, who learned that during the photo shoot, Art Hinton and his wife Mona took 8-mm movies, which recorded the remarkable scene. She builds the movie around them. Thus we can watch as the picture comes together, as Kane tries to take command, as Benton smokes nervously off to the side, as neighborhood kids disrupt the proceedings by stealing Count Basie's hat -- in grainy color, no less.
Then Bach interviews survivors, unleashing a treasure trove of great old men telling raucous stories on their buddies. Bach -- or editor Susan Peehl -- knits together long sequences of jazzmen talking about other jazzmen, cutting back to them in 1958, then cutting forward to another point of view. She also makes great use of kinescopes from a local New York jazz TV show of the time, which conjures up all the smoky grandeur, the martinis-for-two-at-2 intimacy of jazz in the '50s.
As delightful as the film will prove to jazz fans, I think another subculture might be infatuated by it: magazine freaks. The Esquire of the late '50s and early '60s was one of the greatest of all American magazines: cool, hip, funny, powerful, a good 10 feet in front of the cutting edge, outperforming Hugh Hefner's pitiful wannabe, Playboy. For a generation, it defined American culture. The film captures the excitement of the magazine business in those days, the sense of possibility and relevance. "A Great Day in Harlem" recalls the great days in America when both jazz and magazines still mattered.
'A Great Day in Harlem'
Produced by Jean Bach
Released by Castle Hill