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Image Entertainment presents
A Great Day in Harlem (1994)

"There's a whole lot of people I like in there."
- Dizzy Gillespie, studying perhaps the most famous photograph in jazz

Review By: Jon Danziger   
Published: June 15, 2006

Stars: Art Kane, Robert Benton, Dizzy Gillespie, Art Blakey, Art Farmer, Milt Hinton, Gerry Mulligan, Marian McPartland, Nat Hentoff, Thelonius Monk, Sonny Rollins, Coleman Hawkins
Director: Jean Bach

MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 00h:59m:44s
Release Date: January 03, 2006
UPC: 014381303520
Genre: documentary

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B- B+C+B- A-

DVD Review

Bring together a couple dozen of the greatest musicians in the world, and you're sure to get some sort of organized chaos—laughs and memories, disputed versions of just what happened, and a barrelful of terrific photographs. The editors of Esquire did exactly that in 1958, when they were working on a special issue devoted to jazz—editor Robert Benton (who would go on to a career as a film director, with such notable credits as Kramer versus Kramer) assigned novice photographer Art Kane to the task, and one morning some of the brightest lights in American popular music met at a Harlem brownstone, to take the photograph that appears on the cover of this DVD case. This film is a collection of memories of that day, featuring lots of archival footage, and plenty of stories about who was there and what they meant to jazz.

There's some discussion of the practical matters—the 10 a.m. call was awfully early, especially for those musicians who had been playing into the wee hours the night before, but they rallied, and Kane, Benton and journalist Nat Hentoff talk us through the event. That's about all the story the movie has to offer, so instead of narrative drive, we get lots of happy memories and little vignettes about those in the picture. Some of those pictured, like Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonius Monk, are familiar to even the most casual fan; others are more remote and not as well remembered, though their artistry was frequently at a very high level. What's great about the picture is that, despite being a group shot, it captures so well the personalities of many of the participants. Check out, for instance, Count Basie, who, tired of standing around, takes a seat on the curb next to a bunch of kids from the neighborhood. Or look all the way to the right, to see Gillespie sticking out his tongue, or Marian McPartland with her sensible handbag in the front row, or the drummers' section halfway up the steps to the left. And aside from Basie's friends on the curb, what sort of makes the picture for me are the little kids sitting in the window sill, at once charmed and suspicious of the jazz royalty that's descended on their street.

Any jazz fan is likely to have favorites here—I'm partial to Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young, two legendary tenor sax players, but it's nice to see vocalists like Maxine Sullivan and Jimmy Rushing get their moments to shine, too, and to appreciate the detective work done by filmmaker Jean Bach, who has even hunted down some of the neighborhood kids in the picture, now all grown up. It must have been a great day, and it's a cool photo, but the film is really more of just an annotation of Kane's snapshot—the movie is really doing its job if it gets you to re-listen to some old favorites, or to see just what winners you may have missed in the jazz section at Tower or on iTunes.

Rating for Style: B-
Rating for Substance: B+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: An adequate transfer of a film consisting largely of archival material; the newly shot interviews have a flatness to them, suggesting that not much attention was paid to the technical elements of this disc.

Image Transfer Grade: C+


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishno

Audio Transfer Review: Some hiss throughout; happily, the recordings of most of the musicians pictured here sound a lot better.

Audio Transfer Grade: B-


Disc Extras

Static menu with music
Scene Access with 8 cues and remote access
2 Documentaries
60 Featurette(s)
Packaging: Amaray Double
Picture Disc
2 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extras Review: The first disc of the set holds the feature, along with four informative documentaries. Stories from the Making of A Great Day in Harlem (43m:39s) is hosted by Jean Bach, the film's producer—she discusses how this picture became so iconic in the world of jazz, and discusses scouring archives, tracking down witnesses, and enlisting the help of filmmakers and technicians to get the film made. The photographer himself, Art Kane, discusses the picture in an interview (10m:01s)—this was one of his very first assignments, the beginning of a great career in photography, and especially moving is his visit to the sight of the picture. A couple of great young musicians from a subsequent era pay their respects to those pictured in The Next Generation: Bill Charlap and Kenny Washington (25m:45s), and Bach gives us a guided tour of The Copycat Photos (12m:05s)—she doesn't much seem to believe that imitation is in fact the highest form of flattery as she shows off the ripoffs, including Great Days in Hollywood, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Houston, and Kansas City, among others.

Disc Two is even better, making great use of the technology that the format has to offer. The photograph in question is reproduced as the main menu, and you can move around from face to face—if you click on a musician, you'll find a brief featurette on him or her, featuring variously archival footage, interview outtakes, observations from friends and colleagues, and occasional bits of performance film. You'll find pieces on 57 musicians, and one of the kids; you can also go through an alphabetical list, if the names are more familiar than the faces.

Extras Grade: A-


Final Comments

An hour full of happy memories from a great historical moment in American music, with an impressive second disc that provides still more context and background. If Harlem moved to China, I know of nothing finer than to stow away on a plane some day and have them drop me off in Harlem.


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