Picks and Pans Review: A Great Day in Harlem

updated 03/13/1995 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/13/1995 01:00AM

Documentary

Jazz fans are the obvious audience for this engaging little film (an Academy Award nominee for Best Feature Documentary), but its 60 minutes are so lively, good-natured and full of unforced affection that others, too, will find it thoroughly enjoyable.

Great Day chronicles a 1958 photograph commissioned by Esquire art editor Robert Benton (later director of such films as Kramer vs. Kramer and Places in the Heart) for a special issue on jazz. Benton asked freelance art director Arthur Kane, who had never taken a professional picture, to gather as many jazz stars as he could on 126th Street in Harlem for a group picture.

Kane, mostly through blind luck, wound up with a remarkable photograph that included Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Gene Krupa, Marian McPartland, Roy Eldridge, Buck Clayton, Art Blakey, Bud Freeman, Pee Wee Russell, Thelonius Monk, Charles Mingus, Willie "The Lion" Smith, Jimmy Rushing, Sonny Rollins and Mary Lou Williams. (In a sad footnote, Kane died last month at 69 in Lancaster, Ky., an apparent suicide.)

Fortunately for the makers of this documentary, the group also included bassist and longtime amateur photographer Milt Hinton, who brought his wife, Mona, and his 8-mra movie camera. It is Mona's shaky but fascinating footage that producer Jean Bach mixes into filmed interviews with surviving members of the group, reminiscing about being in the photo. (The shot was taken around 10 a.m., a shockingly early hour for the nocturnal jazzmen. "Somebody said it was the first time he realized there were two 10 o'clocks every day," one participant recalls.) Bach rarely intercedes, letting the musicians' recollections and Mrs. Hinton's film speak for themselves. That reticence is a weakness at times, however, since the film cries for, among other things, an explanation of why such greats as Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington skipped the portrait session (which ended up including an array of neighborhood children).

Still, Bach's interviews reflect the spontaneity and camaraderie that create (and are generated by) great jazz. And Susan Peehl stitched all the elements together in a spectacular job of editing, creating what is in effect an interpersonal variation on the jam session, (not rated)

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