A Great Day in Harlem


A Great Day In Harlem

By Bob Hershon


Originally Published In Jazziz Magazine




In 1958, Robert Benton, (“Nobody’s Fool”) who was directing Esquire’s art department, instead of Paul Newman, sent out invitations to New York’s jazz community to pose for a group picture, that would run in their January “jazz” issue.


An ordinary request that yielded extraordinary results, as all the stars came out on that August morning in Harlem. “Youngsters”; Sonny Rollins, Horace Silver, Charles Mingus and Gerry Mulligan, got to rub shoulders with their idols; Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Roy Eldridge and Dizzy Gillespie and fifty other legendary performers such as Count Basie, Thelonius Monk, , Jimmy Rushing and Maxine Sullivan


All this occurred before the eyes of Robert Kane, a startled young photographer, who was as an unlikely choice as the early hour (ten o’clock) for this legendary photo. Imitating professionalism he didn’t possess, he finally managed to order these players into a picture that became the subject of Jean Bach’s film “A Great Day In Harlem”.


Milt Hinton the most experienced photographer “on the job”, contributes his photos to the film as well as some priceless eight millimeter footage of the gathering, shot by his wife Mona, who was told to, “point the camera and push the button.


The players who were gathered by Jean Bach like Art Blakey, Art Farmer and Hank Jones all recount their thoughts and feelings on that “great day”, holding the framed photo in their hands as if it was holy article of faith. Foremost among these storytellers is Johnny Griffin, whose dulcet tones and delivery recreate the feeling, the time and even the quirks of these great musicians.


It’s not just the same war stories, as we hear Rollins talk about waiting up all night for Coleman Hawkins to come home so he would sign his eight by ten glossy. Or Horace Silver, who used to use the reverb of the bathroom hall to sound like “Prez” (Lester Young. We even find out why Monk, the last to arrive, kept everyone waiting two hours.


But this film is not a simple reminisce but all serves to put the contributions of players like trumpeter Rex Stewart, pianists Lucky Roberts, Mary Lou Williams and Willie “The Lion” Smith and clarinetist Pee Wee Russell in a clearer light. Filmed performance footage is artfully chosen and blends beautifully with the rest of the piece due in no small part to editor Susan Peehl(“The Many Faces of Billie Holiday”), who has chosen to make every frame an interesting one.


It was no small blessing that Bach caught up to participants like Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Freeman, Buck Clayton, Sahib Shabab, Max Kaminsky and Art Blakey, who have since passed on. As Art Farmer said looking down at the photo, “I can’t believe they’re not here, cause I hear them all the time.” Films like “Great Day In Harlem”, guarantee that we will now be able to see them too.