Remembering Jean Bach, Director of 'A Great Day In Harlem'

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Ask me to name three feel-good films and I’ll rattle off a trio of lesser-known choices: the Ali-Foreman debacle When We Were Kings (1996), the noodle-western Tampopo (1985) and A Great Day in Harlem, probably the most unlikely film of the three.  The hour-long film was based on a single photograph.

Jean Bach made the film.  A lifetime jazz aficionado, she went after graduating from Vassar to hanging out with the hip jazz musicians in New York City.  Duke Ellington and Bobby Short were admirers of the smart, hip, and very pretty young blond.  She was friends with jazz bassist Milt Hinton, who took and published some great jazz photographs while not up there on the stand (he was a busy musician, much in demand).  He told her about an amazing, impossible photo taken in 1958 by a non-photographer that had 58 of the best jazz musicians in New York City all posing in one place at the same time, about as likely as getting hit by an asteroid.

Art Kane was a hot young art director at Esquire magazine on assignment by Robert Benton, his boss.  Benton told him to assemble the best jazz musicians at 10 a.m.  on a stoop on 126th Street between Madison and Fifth in Harlem.  Never mind that Kane didn’t know how to put film into a camera, let alone shoot it.  And, to his astonishment and horror, most of the musicians, normally asleep at that hour, all showed up.  Roy Eldridge and Dizzy Gillespie were there, making faces at each other.  Thelonious Monk showed up in his usual sartorial splendor.  Also there was Coleman Hawkins, Art Farmer, Lester Young, Charles Mingus, Sonny Rollins, Gene Krupa, Count Basie, Art Blakey.  Small kids kept sitting on the lower steps with the musical lions.  One of the musicians said, “I didn’t know there was two ten o’clocks in the day!”

Jean Bach saw the photo and decided to make a film about it.  She got 8mm footage that Milt Hinton’s wife shot.  Quincy Jones narrated it.  Sadly, Art Kane, later a senior administrator at Art Center, took his life after a bout of depression.  It was before SSRI’s like Prozac and Zoloft.

The film is a wonderful way to spend an hour whether you’re a jazz nut or not.  Whitney Balliet, jazz poet of the New Yorker, said that ‘A Great Day’ was not only about the famous photo but “about mortality, loyalty, talent, musical beauty, and the fact that jazz musicians tend to be the least pretentious artists on Earth.”  Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter’s book Three Wishes:  An Intimate Look at Jazz Greats underscores Balliet’s words.  See my past post from March, 2011 to read more.

Jean Bach, born September 27 1918, died May 27 2013.

Here’s a cool snapshot of her 1994 Oscar nominated jazz documentary: