Filmic Fugues

About one-third of the way through Jean Bach's hourlong 1995 documentary A Great Day in Harlem, the photographer Art Kane notes, with a slight air of exasperation, "To control this group was near impossible." The group to which he refers was composed of 57 jazz musicians -- some already legends, some in the process of establishing their reputations -- who gathered on the steps of a Harlem brownstone one summer morning in 1958 as part of a photo shoot for a special jazz-theme issue of Esquire magazine. Thelonious Monk was there. So was Count Baise. Charles Mingus. Roy Eldridge. Dizzy Gillespie. Mary Lou Williams. Lester Young. Coleman Hawkins. Sonny Rollins. Horace Silver. And on and on and on. All there. At 10:00 a.m., no less. "It was an incredible environment to wander into," saxophonist Gerry Mulligan recalls in Bach's film. No kidding.

Using the now-famous Kane group shot that wound up in Esquire as a touchstone, A Great Day in Harlem explores and celebrates -- with warmth, insight, and humor -- the lives and the music of many of the participating jazzers, adroitly weaving together a cinematic tapestry of archival black-and-white footage, old photos, Bach's recent interviews with musicians and others who were there, and 8mm color "home movies" of the event shot by bassist Milt Hinton and his wife Mona. Bach's film, nominated for an Academy Award in 1995 as Best Documentary, screens on Saturday, along with her equally superb The Spitball Story -- a 21-minute 1997 work about an infamous 1941 incident involving Hinton, bandleader Cab Calloway, and trumpeters Gillespie and Jonah Jones -- as part of this weekend's Jazz in Film Festival. The three-day fest will show twelve other movies about jazz figures and will feature conversations with a few directors, including Bach.

Recalls the 79-year-old Bach, speaking over the phone from her home in New York City: "I knew everybody in that photograph," either through her parents or through meeting them as a budding jazz enthusiast herself. "In those days it was no trick to get friendly with these people." Bach grew up in Milwaukee and Chicago in what she describes as "a musical family." Her father ran a Chicago advertising agency at the height of the big band craze, and his clients sponsored a weekly radio show featuring many of the genre's stars. Eventually she married jazz trumpeter Shorty Sherock, who played with Gene Krupa's band, and wound up in New York, where she became acquainted with even more jazz notables. (She later married TV producer Bob Bach, now deceased.)

Over the years Bach worked in newspapers, TV, and finally radio, serving as long-time producer of Arlene Francis's New York talk show until the program went off the air in 1984. "I was kind of flopping around after that," she admits. At a 1989 "jazz party," she overheard Hinton mention to "her beau," another jazz obsessive, that he and his wife had made home movies of the 1958 Esquire shoot. "I thought, 'Boink.' That suggests a film to me," Bach remembers. But she had absolutely no filmmaking experience. "I don't know where I got the nerve to think I could do it. I thought it might be easy. Shows you how dumb I was."

She spent the next four years making A Great Day in Harlem, working as producer, co-writer, and interviewer. Her old ties proved handy when it came to corralling the various players who had assembled for the photo. "My asking them to be in a movie was kind of from left field," she allows, "but I guess they figured they'd known me over the years and I wouldn't do anything terrible." Still, several presented a challenge. Pianist Hank Jones, for one. "Very skeptical," pronounces Bach. "Lovely guy. But he couldn't believe that any nut woman wanted to put him in a movie."

-- Michael Yockel

The Jazz in Film Festival runs from Friday, July 31, to Sunday, August 2, at the Bill Cosford Cinema, University of Miami, off Campo Sano Avenue, Coral Gables. Admission for individual films is $7; advance passes for all three days cost $35. Call 305-662-8889.

 
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