Original release date: September 27th, 1994
Re-release date: March 26th, 2007
When in August 1958 'Esquire' magazine commissioned a young Art Kane to produce a photograph of Harlem's jazz musicians for a feature it planned to run, no-one could have guessed that a cultural icon of jazz was going to be produced. Word was sent out; be at 125th Street Station at 10.00 am for the photo shoot. 58 jazz musicians turned up, something of a surprise given the hour; no Miles Davis or John Coltrane or Jackie McLean, their absence perhaps explained by the observation that most jazz musicians are unaware that there are two 10 o'clocks in each day. Yet many of the 58 were to be later recognised as jazz greats – Sonny Rollins, Dizzy Gillespie, Horace Silver, Count Basie, Gerry Mulligan, Thelonious Monk, Art Blakey, Coleman Hawkins, Johnny Griffin, Hank Jones, Charles Mingus, Lester Young, Art Farmer. And many others whose contribution is perhaps now less well remembered (Henry 'Red' Allen, Roy Eldridge, Bud Freeman, Benny Golson, Gene Krupa, Oscar Pettiford, Luckey Roberts, Stuff Smith, Wilber Ware, amongst the many others) are artists who should be kept in our attention.
The photograph of the group posing on the steps of a nearby brownstone entrance has become rightly famous as "A Great Day In Harlem", inspiring copycat "Great Day" photographs around the world. You can interactively view the photograph at the "Great Day in Harlem" site where there is a useful brief biography of each artist and a listing of performers present by instrument and style.
It might be thought that with all this background there is no need for a two DVD video on this but indeed, director Jean Bach and narrator Quincey Jones use the photograph to create an affectionate portrait of the people behind a portion of the tradition in jazz – a tradition that is so often taken for granted.
Many of the musicians brought their own cameras and took their own shots in the two hours it took to get participants ready for the final "great" photograph. Milt Hinton and his wife Mona brought along a colour film camera. This footage and the numerous black and white shots of the other artists are used skillfully to recreate the photoshoot as the event that it turned out to be. You really get the feeling of what it must have been like to be the inexperienced Art Kane (he had not taken a professional picture of any kind before this assignment) trying to get some response from the assembled performers, many of whom had not seen each other for years and who were involved in all kinds of "catching up" conversations, the late arrivers (Thelonious Monk in a scene stealing white jacket) and the neighborhood street kids (who end up sharing the kerb side with a seated Count Basie in the final photograph).
There are interviews with many of the participants, made in 1994 at the time of the first release of Jean Bach's one hour documentary. Add short bursts of archive footage of many of the actors performing and that's the final ingredient in a documentary that is informative, witty and engaging. It gives a real feel of jazz as a living tradition, carried by real people.
In addition to the as released documentary, the newly released two disc set includes over four hours of special features – Art Kane, Copycat "Great Day" photographs, and video profiles of all the musicians who took part.
Overall, this is a very entertaining and informative slice of the history of jazz seen from the point of view of the musicians themselves, brought together for that all important photoshoot one day in August 1958.
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