Thursday, April 10, 2008

Today is the Greatest

I just finished watching A Great Day in Harlem. It's a documentary about a photograph, which sounds like a strange proposition, unless you're familiar with the photograph in question.

The photograph was shot in Harlem back in 1958 by the legendary photographer Art Kane and it features nearly every important jazz musician who was working in New York at that time. It's hard to appreciate the gravity of this photograph without being fairly knowledgeable about jazz history. Like the picture, this documentary is probably only of interest to jazz aficionados and photography buffs.

The movie was filmed in 1994, presumably on a small budget, and it definitely shows. What the film lacks in production values, it more than makes up for in content. The filmmakers were able to interview a lot of the surviving members of the photo, many of whom were near the end of their lives (Dizzy Gillespie, Art Blakey, Milt Hinton, Art Farmer, etc.). The interview footage was fascinating and was complemented by archival footage of the musicians and home movie footage of the making of the photo that was shot by Milt Hinton's wife. I was especially impressed with the footage of some fairly obscure musicians. There was some great Stuff Smith footage, a great but largely unknown jazz violinist. Vic Dickinson, an incredible trombone player whom I had never heard of, was also featured.

It seems appropriate that the greatest photograph in the history of jazz was itself a product of improvisation. Kane was not even a professional photographer when he got the idea for the shoot. He sent word out across town for the musicians to assemble one morning in front of a brownstone in Harlem and when they started showing up, he wasn't even sure how to get the musicians to stand still long enough to pose for the photo. Like a great jazz solo, everything seemed to come together.


Michael David said...

The only reason I've heard of A Great Day in Harlem is that it was nominated for the Academy Award for best documentary in 1994, the year that Hoop Dreams wasn't nominated. Most of the critics thought that Hoop Dreams was much better than all five of the nominated films (and the backlash was bad enough that they changed the way documentaries are nominated), but that A Great Day in Harlem and Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision (which won) were at least worthy of being mentioned alongside Hoop Dreams.

dhodge said...

I've never seen Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision, but I think Hoop Dreams is clearly better than A Great Day in Harlem (not to say that I didn't enjoy A Great Day in Harlem).