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PopMatters Seeks Music Critics and Essayists: If you're a smart, historically-minded music critic or essayist, let your voice be heard by our quality readership.

‘A Great Day in Harlem’ Is the Story of a Great Photograph and Much More

On that particular long day, the musicians were surprised and glad to see each other, recognizing in each other a fraternity that didn't see much daylight, that "lived hard".

“Jazz is in the genes and it’s always there. It just needs the right soil to grow in, you know. It’s there already, just needs to be nurtured, you know.” Sonny Rollins here does as good a job of defining jazz as anyone, apprehending its simultaneous urgency and elusiveness, allowing its mystery. But if jazz might show up in unexpected genes, in the bodies and souls of disparate individuals, the soil tends to be circumstantial, at once material and metaphorical, even metaphysical.

Like so many other jazz artists, Rollins found his soil in New York City, pulsing and beguiling, ever shifting. It was and still is home to “guys that live very hard,” Rollins goes on, “They surrender themselves to just the art. But what’s the point of living to be 100 if you don’t do anything in life?” Rollins is remembering artists he’s known, specifically, artists who assembled for a photograph on a brownstone stoop in Harlem, during the summer of 1958. That photograph, by Art Kane for Esquire magazine, has come to signify widely, a moment in time, a veneration of brilliance, a document of an event that seems altogether improbable, even in hindsight.

The photograph is also the focus for Jean Bach’s wonderful documentary, A Great Day in Harlem. Originally released in 1994, the film is screening for the first time in New York City since Bach’s death last May, on 25 February at Stranger than Fiction, where it will be followed by a Q&A with producer Matthew Seig and editor Susan Peehl. It’s not often that a film about jazz artists can get at anything like jazz, but this one comes close, in its manifest reverence for its subjects, its joy in their lives and their humor, and its own creative backbeats.

The story of the photo is a good place to start, and Kane here recounts his own inexperience at the time. “I wasn’t a photographer,” says the man who went on to become renowned for his portraits of fashion and music icons, but instead, an art director at Seventeen magazine. Robert Benton, then the art director at Esquire (who went on to direct Kramer vs. Kramer, among other films), thought the kid “had a lot of talent,” and agreed to what seemed a crazy idea, to bring jazz musicians together for a shoot at 10am, outside on the street, because, well, “I didn’t’ have a studio,” says Kane. “I was new enough and dumb enough to try all kinds of risky things,” he says.

Some of those musicians laugh now at the very notion. “In those days, most musicians, myself included, didn’t get to bed until, say, four o’clock in the mornings,” says Bud Freeman. He sits now on a big beige sofa, his pale blue jacket not quite the color of his pale blue shirt, his eyeglasses gigantic. “You wake up as a rule, at 12 or one, ravenously hungry, wondering what you were gonna do with the long day coming.”

On that particular long day, the musicians were surprised and glad to see each other, recognizing in each other a fraternity that didn’t see much daylight, that “lived hard.” Kane remembers that it was thrilling to watch “them all move into the street. The only thing was, you couldn’t control it because they were all musicians who hadn’t seen each other in one solid congregation in probably ever before.”

But if they weren’t inclined to pose or even hear the kid with the camera, that sort of energy is visible in the photo, a sort that’s not quite accidental, but seems improvisational. Kane’s assistant for the day, Steve Frankfurt, was even younger and less experienced than he was. He remembers loading the film into the camera backwards and having to redo it, worried that their subjects would get bored and disperse. “They were just waking up,” he says “and all focused or trying to focus on that kid across the street with the camera.”

The subjects who sit down with Bach remember each other too. Looking again at the photo to pick out faces and jackets. As the camera zooms close to Thelonius Monk in the photo, his glasses dark and his hat pushed back, Johnny Griffin remembers his effect on any room: “Monk would walk around and everybody’s, ‘Blah blah,’ and he may not say a word… for 20 minutes.” The camera pulls out, to show Monk the only person of this group who’s looking at it. “Then all of a sudden, he’d say three or four words and destroy everything we had been talking about for the last half an hour. He washed it out. Just like that.” Griffin waves his hand. “Timing.” Cut to Monk on the piano. Timing.

Art Blakey remembers Monk too. “I loved Monk because he had high morals.” “Really?” asks Bach from off screen. Blakey nods. “He always told the truth. If you want to know something and you asked him a question and you’re ready for the answer, he’s gonna tell you the truth. That’s what people don’t like, that’s why they were afraid of him.” Rollins remembers his idol, Coleman Hawkins, telling Bach he was the reason Rollins chose his own instrument: “I liked the alto, but after listening to him, I wanted to play tenor.” Rollins also has vivid memories of Lester Young, his original style in clothes as well as music: “It was like he came from another planet for a short visit, then went back,” smiles Rollins, “Just fantastic.”

It’s a description that might fit the photograph as well, an instant captured, so strange and so perfect, so resonant and so immediate. As the film pulls together the memories of participants — including one of the kids who sat on the curb next to Count Basie, as well as some of the musician’s children, now grown up — it also creates its own rhythms. Just so, when Rollins and by Dizzy Gillespie each remembers Coleman Hawkins, their interviews are cut together come together, offbeat and connected too, an odd time signature that reminds you you’re watching an assembly of memories, of an assembly of greats.

RATING 8 / 10