The International Writers Magazine: DVD Review

A Great Day In Harlem
Dan Schneider

recall first seeing the lauded and multiply awarded jazz documentary A Great Day In Harlem a dozen or so years ago on PBS, and while not a jazz fan nor aficionado, it was a short film (only an hour) that seemed to compress much of jazz history into a convenient package.

Later on, when PBS historian Ken Burns turned his formulaic eye on the art form, with a monstrous nineteen hour documentary series, I felt he could have learned alot from this film. Yes, like too many documentaries, especially on subjects like jazz, there is far too much hagiography of mediocrities going on, but the key difference as to why this slight film is considered a ‘success’, filmically, while Burns’ far more professional and well-financed series is considered a ‘failure’, is due to one reason: concision.

Thus, when I came upon a new two disk DVD version of the old documentary, I decided to revisit it, especially since it had a second disk that would probably have quite a bit more information than the actual film did. Where Burns was ponderous and pontificating in his simply named film Jazz, A Great Day In Harlem has a few of the then still living participants in first time photographer Art Kane’s famous 1958 Esquire magazine photograph merely reminiscing about the day the shot was taken. Some, like drummer Art Blakey, seem to have gone senile, while others, like Marian McPartland, seem to be as sharp as ever. While certainly not insightful into the subject of jazz itself, the film does serve as a time capsule, and it does convey a more human side to the intellectually masturbated over art of jazz. Yes, there is far too much personal reminiscence and far too little insight into why the music is good and relevant- the lack of which may actually explain why jazz is in such steep decline in the country of its birth, but A Great Day In Harlem tackles almost all of its subjects- 58 in all, in just about a minute apiece, making it an MTV style documentary about pre-MTV music. What little narration is required is provided by Quincy Jones, and the film was directed by a New York City radio show host named Jean Bach- an aging white Upper West Side diva who seems to be the walking embodiment of the term dilettante. That said, she is an engaging old bird, especially in the bonus features, where she goes into great detail about how she went about conceiving of and making the film, which was co-produced and written with Matthew Seig and Susan Peehl.

The story of the film is not about jazz, but the photograph, and the music takes a backseat to the personalities, even as it rambles on in the background, spiced with bits from films and tv specials from that era. The tv clips are especially revealing, and watching them give more insight into the art form’s mid-Twentieth Century appeal than hours of egghead philosophizing by Burns cronies could. However, folks from the photo, such as Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Rollins, Bud Freeman, Art Farmer, Marian McPartland, Art Blakey, Gerry Mulligan, and others go on and on, and the suspicion the film leves- that they really did spend hours rambling, is confirmed with humorous punctuation in the bonus features. There are also many other photographs taken that day by the participants- and used in the film, as well as color 8mm film taken by bassist Milt Hinton and his wife Mona, which illustrates just how difficult it was to get the often egoistic participants to group together as needed, especially with jazz superstars like Count Basie, Thelonius Monk, Coleman Hawkins, Charlie Mingus, Lester Young, and Gene Krupa all present. Also, many of the musicians spent far too long reminiscing, as the whole photo shoot took over an hour when it could have been done in five minutes.

There are funny little stories, such as why Count Basie is sitting on the sidewalk with some children, and why certain musicians are standing next to others, or turned away from the camera. But, the film itself is not particularly deep. What makes this new release on DVD a treat is a wealth of extra features on both disks. There is an insert with an essay, and on the first disk, with the film itself, are featurettes on photographer Art Kane, latter day hagiographers Bill Charlap and Kenny Washington- who seemingly drool over the photo, a segment on ‘Copycat Photos’ which try to get great people from different arts and cities in similar poses, as well as the filmmakers reminiscing on the making of the documentary, with a wealth of humorous outtakes. But, the real treat is on disk two, where nearly three hours of comments on certain musicians can be accessed by scrolling over to the person in the photo and pressing the play button for their segment.
  In sum, no one who is not acquainted with jazz will learn much of why to like the art form by watching A Great Day In Harlem, but they will still be entertained by the comments of those involved, and the manifest love and care, if not skill, that went into the photo and this documentary about it. That’s more than most DVDs these days give you, right?

© Dan Schnieder Oct 2006

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