When freelance photographer Art Kane rounded up 57 of the world’s greatest jazz musicians on a hot summer morning at 10 am, Aug. 12, 1958, he accomplished the impossible. For jazz musicians to even get up at this ungodly hour after all-night gigs was a minor miracle. Like herding baby kittens, Kane patiently struggled to get the chatty, rambling group organized on the steps of a Harlem brownstone at 17 E. 126th St. off 5th Avenue, so he could proceed with his first professional assignment for Esquire: to shoot what became the most historic jazz photo of all time. (I love the gathering of curious neighborhood kids in the photo, who were undoubtedly amused by this event. And imagine this feat of word-of-mouth organization, all without benefit of cell phones!)
In 1994 Jean Bach produced an award-winning documentary, based on home movies of the historic day. Narrated by Quincy Jones, the film tells the story behind the legendary photograph, with bios, rare, archival pics and footage of live performances and interviews with 30 jazz greats. You can now navigate to any image in the photo to see the musician’s name, and click on the name to bring up a selection of related scenes in the documentary (including outtakes). 1995 Academy Award nominee for Best Documentary, and winner of numerous film festivals. 60 min. DVD.
Film producer Jean Bach died in May, 2013. At age 94, she was still enjoying her nights out on the town, listening to jazz.
A GREAT DAY IN HARLEM: 55 years later
Sadly, only 4 of the musicians in the Great Day photo are still alive today. But happily, they are still making great jazz and continue to grow.
Their attitudes about life and music are worth emulating. To quote one of them,
“My health, both mental and physical, is good, and I intend to pursue new and different approaches to my music and my career. I will search for hidden talents that I didn’t know I had and do my best to cultivate them. I am grateful for each day, and I will try to use each day as a stepping stone to greater achievements.” – Horace Silver
(born 1918), jazz pianist and host of Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz, NPR’s longest running jazz program