Across 126th Street

Art Kane's famous photo became the basis of an Oscar-nominated jazz documentary, now available with hours of extra footage.

By Leo Charney
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Dec. 28, 2005

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A Great Day in Harlem
Includes: Hours of interviews and featurettes.
You'll Like It If You Like: Jazz history.
Fri., Dec. 30, 7:30pm. Philadelphia Museum of Art, 26th St. and the Pkwy. 215.763.8100.

There's a thrilling documentary waiting to be made about jazz-one that charts all the interconnections that snaked through the 20th century, the intersections with African-American history, the whole Freudian/Oedipal drama of new musicians stealing from and then topping the old ones, the double-edged sword of drugs, the hard road of hard women struggling to make a name as singers and players.

A Great Day in Harlem wants to be that movie-it sometimes seems to think it is that movie-but it's so relentlessly anecdotal and reverential that it's more like a cocktail party. It buzzes around the world of '50s jazz like a dilettante, but in the end it doesn't offer much more than some names and trivia.

It's a whole film about one photograph: a shot of 57 jazz musicians, taken for Esquire magazine on an August morning in 1958 on a street in Harlem. For an hour musicians and photographers reminisce about the shoot, and we see 8 mm home-movie footage that Milt Hinton's wife Mona was smart enough to shoot at the time.

If there's a jazz musician you've heard of, chances are they're in the picture. Playful Count Basie sits down on the curb next to some kids; hipster Thelonious Monk defines cool in shades and a light-colored jacket (the better to stand out from the crowd of dark suits); wacky Dizzy Gillespie sticks out his tongue and shares a joke with Roy Eldridge.

Here's the whole cast of characters for a rich exploration of midcentury jazz, but that movie never shows up. Instead we hear about where people lived and chatter like, "Milt Hinton today is much heavier than he was in this picture," and astonishing banalities like Bud Freeman's description of everyone in the shot as "all good guys, good friends, no jealous egomaniacs."

If the movie doesn't dig deep, it's still a success on its own literal-minded terms, filling in the background of this magazine shot as if it were the Mona Lisa. (Most people didn't think twice about the picture at the time, and almost no one saved a copy.) "The picture became a movie," says Robert Benton, the art director of Esquire magazine who commissioned it (and who would later co-write Bonnie and Clyde, and win an Oscar for directing Kramer vs. Kramer). "It was a still, but it was really a living thing."

Well, yes and no. The photo's frozen moment is a kind of death, and it took on value only as a memorial to a bygone time and a dying art form. Near the movie's end we get a hint of this darkness, as Art Farmer comments on the eerie immortality shared by music and photography. "We don't think about people not being here. We don't think, well, Lester Young was here, but he's not here anymore. Lester Young is here. Coleman Hawkins is here. They are in us, and they will always be alive."

There's a sadder, more resonant movie in these lines, one that might interest viewers who aren't already into jazz. Great Day is too shallow for jazz fans, yet it doesn't give anyone else a reason to care. It's too much like a home movie. The new two-DVD set adds hours of extra footage-including reminiscences about each person in the photo (findable by name) and commentary by contemporary jazz musicians Bill Charlap and Kenny Washington-but these extras remain as relentlessly superficial as the documentary itself.

Jean Bach, who produced Great Day and did many of its interviews, will present it at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It's a great opportunity to see this vigorous eightysomething woman who loves and lived through a whole era of world and music history-even if she, like the rest of us, is still waiting for somebody else to make a definitive movie about it.

Five Great Jazz DVDs

Clint Eastwood, the great jazz-influenced movie director, gives the full biopic treatment to legendary saxophonist Charlie "Bird" Parker, including the drugs and drink that killed him at 34.

Jazz on a Summer's Day
Classic documentary of the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, with a drifting style that evokes both jazz and summertime, and performances from all-stars including Louis Armstrong, Dinah Washington, Thelonious Monk and Gerry Mulligan.

Lady Sings the Blues
Billie Holiday gets the Hollywood treatment in a surprisingly raw biopic (new on DVD) that vividly evokes the period's atmosphere and stars a mesmerizing Diana Ross.

'Round Midnight
Real-life jazzman Dexter Gordon brings a lifetime of pain and music to the lead role in Bertrand Tavernier's smoky evocation of Paris and jazz in the 1950s.

Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser
Music-heavy documentary (produced by Clint Eastwood) of the brilliant, enigmatic jazz pianist, who made his own rules and may or may not have been schizophrenic.

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