New York City circa 1958, for the jazz aficionado, was the place to be. Possibly no other artifact can confirm this statement with more clarity than photographer Art Kane’s landmark portrait A Great Day in Harlem.
NYC clubs boasted nightly performances by a collection of the greatest players in jazz history and that, combined with plans for Esquire magazine’s 1959 annual jazz issue gave birth to a picture that remains to this day one of the most reproduced images in the world. As it frequently does when inspiration strikes, good fortune played a role in the production of a masterpiece. In that time, the magazines for the young, college-educated male were Esquire and Playboy — much in the same way as Maxim and Stuff were decades later. Both were initially strong supporters of the jazz music scene. Playboy remained so for decades with the well known and popular Playboy Jazz Festival. (Hugh Hefner got his start with Esquire in the late 1940s, eventually leaving after being denied a $5 raise.)
For their January ’59 issue, the editors at Esquire decided on a two-page spread with as much of the cream of the New York jazz community crop that could be gathered in one place at one time. Freelance photographer Kane was dispatched to produce the result. Aware that the scheduled 10 a.m. time for the shoot might have some trouble attracting the late-to-bed, late-to-rise musicians, the staff at Esquire sent invitations to as many names as possible — hoping sheer numbers alone would produce at least enough faces to get a decent photo. Kane had virtually no experience as a photographer and severe doubts about the potential turnout but later claimed he probably didn’t know any better.
He needn’t have worried: Much to the surprise of everyone involved, plenty of musicians assembled on the steps of a Harlem brownstone near the 125th street station that summer day, including Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, Benny Golson, Coleman Hawkins, Gene Krupa, Marian McPartland, Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins and Mary Lou Williams, among many others. Kane had his shot.
Known as Jazz Portrait: Harlem 1958 or A Great Day in Harlem, the artists pictured span generations and styles. Some were famous at the time of the shoot and some were only destined to become famous. Some have faded into obscurity and some are names even the most casual of jazz fan are sure to know. The photo itself has come to be used on posters and postcards and has been hung everywhere from bars in Japan to barbershops in Iowa — and my living room for that matter. Later, a Tom Hanks movie (2004’s The Terminal) used a poster of A Great Day in Harlem as a MacGuffin, providing the motivation for the Hanks character to head off on a quest to America only to be perpetually stranded in JFK International Airport after he becomes a man with no country. While the Hanks movie might have been a disappointment, the same can’t be said for Jean Bach’s Academy Award-nominated 1994 documentary “A Great Day in Harlem.”
Bach, a journalist active in television and radio produced for 24 years the top-rated “The Arlene Francis Program,” talk show in New York, and also managed her husband trumpet player Shorty Sherock’s band. As a result, she knew many of the participants in the Kane work and was fascinated by the photo enough that it inspired her to seek out audio interviews with the surviving subjects in the hopes of donating the material to the Smithsonian Institute. She soon discovered that bassist Milt Hinton had brought his movie camera to the shoot and that his wife Mona had been filming that day. After some encouragement from friends, Bach began to film the interviews as well and the hour-long documentary on the history behind the photo shoot was born. Much like Kane, Bach apparently had little or no experience with filmmaking but manages to do herself proud.
Narrated by Quincy Jones, the documentary has been re-released on a two-disc Enhanced Special Edition DVD, containing the original film plus over four hours of new material, including a behind-the-scenes feature about the making of the film and a biographical profile of photographer Art Kane. The second disc has an especially interesting feature where you can click on any face in the picture and access profiles and interviews regarding the artist. Jazz musicians Bill Charlap and Kenny Washington are also interviewed regarding the impact of the musicians in A Great Day in Harlem.
This DVD is a great resource for fans of jazz music and Kane’s Jazz Portrait: Harlem 1958. For closer inspection of the photo online, be sure to check out the excellent site: Harlem.org
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