One fine morning in 1958, 57 masters of jazz, from Coleman Hawkins
to Thelonious Monk
, gathered on the steps of a Harlem brownstone on 126th street between Fifth and Madison Avenues. Art Kane, a freelance photographer, snapped a photo of the musicians, joined by several neighborhood kids sitting on the curb with a foot-sore Count Basie. Kane, who was hired by Esquire Magazine
, captured an image that would become iconic, known as “A Great Day in Harlem.”
The photo’s magic lies in the fact that it finds so many innovators together in the center of the Harlem community that fostered the creative jazz movement of the 1950s. Today, only a few of the musicians pictured are still alive.
Radio producer and documentarian Jean Back tells the story of the photograph in her 1994 film A Great Day in Harlem. The film’s highlights are the interviews with the musicians present. Drummer Eddie Locke discusses the friendship between trumpeters Dizzy Gillespie and Roy Eldridge, explaining that Eldridge, the only subject of the photo whose face isn’t visible, has his back turned to the camera because Gillespie had told him a joke just moments before the picture was taken. Gillespie himself speaks with touching reverence for Eldridge’s playing, naming him as an important influence on his own musical development. With these moments and many others, the film paints an intimate portrait of these revered artists as people, showing how their colorful personalities came out through their music.
Besides the most famous figures in the photo, whose stories have been told elsewhere, some of the best moments in the film are the segments on some of the lesser known musicians of the time who, though they may not have recorded extensively or may have worked mostly as sidemen, were still very influential to the musicians of their time. Marian McPartland talks about fellow pianist Mary Lou Williams, who was one of the first female instrumentalists to gain respect among the male-dominated field. Thankfully the film has brings in little seen footage of these musicians in action, including Williams with Andy Kirk and his “Twelve Clouds of Joy,” her first major break as a pianist and an arranger. Williams and others mentioned in the film are all deserving of greater recognition, and the film does them justice with both interviews and footage.
The film, and its accompanying website give a behind-the-scenes look at great moment in jazz history, and the experience is a joy for any jazz fan. It is hard to believe that such a film could be made about something that took place over only a few minutes, but the candid moments with the surviving musicians, eager to share their love for their fellow musicians and to reminisce about their heroes from the older generation, are a joyful view into unique and special community that the photo represents. The film is highly recommended.
Unfortunately, because of copywrite law, we are unable to actually display “A Great Day in Harlem” on this site. Instead, we show Roy Eldridge, the only musician whose face didn't make it into the picture. Do a Google search, you’ll find the complete photograph
Some of the Musicians Pictured: