Memorializing a footnote to jazz history, the documentary “A Great Day in Harlem” recalls the events and personalities surrounding a 1958 photo shoot for Esquire magazine that gathered many of the music’s greats in front of a Harlem brownstone for a group portrait. The understandably fond and nostalgic tone should coincide nicely with the appreciative memories of buffs. Still, its Oscar nomination notwithstanding, one-hour pic’s thin subject is likely to restrict its career to specialized venues, festivals and TV.
For a surprising amount of its running time, docu skirts music and treats Art Kane’s photo — the decisions leading to the shutter’s click and the actions of the subjects during and after the lengthy preparations. While Kane and his assistant, Steve Frankfurt, recall their inexperience and awe at the stars gathered before them, Robert Benton, then an Esquire art director, voices amazement that so many night owls could be assembled at 10 a.m. As Frankfurt notes, one musician said he “didn’t realize there were two 10 o’clocks in the same day.”
Such witticisms, though, are few and far between in what is otherwise a rather prosaic account of an event that transcended the ordinary only in its cast of characters, a gallery that included Count Basie, Thelonious Monk and Charles Mingus, to name a few. The morning’s camaraderie is recalled by Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Rollins, Milt Hinton, Art Blakey, Marian McPartland, writer Nat Hentoff and many more.
Views of the photo session, which include 8mm footage taken by Hinton and his wife, Mona, are protracted to greater length than interest warrants, and Kane’s shot itself is scrutinized as if it were the Mona Lisa.
Happily, pic gains some needed verve when the topic turns at last to music, especially as various of the better-known survivors pay heartfelt tribute to colleagues of lesser renown, such as Vic Dickerson, Henry “Red” Allen and Stuff Smith. Even here, though, the filmmakers concentrate more on wistful reverence than telling substance, with off-camera producer Jean Bach lobbing gushy, softball questions like, “Was he one of the most original people you’ve ever known?”
For non-buffs, pic fails the acid test of exciting interest where there was little or none before; it could easily have covered the same ground in half its length. Jazz die-hards, on the other hand, may well wish for more time in the company of the numerous heroes assembled here.