The editors of Esquire, who had invited America's greatest jazz musicians to show up for a group portrait, were astounded at the response. Despite being so nocturnal that, according to one witness, "they didn't realize that there were two 10 o'clocks in the same day," dozens of jazz giants – from Lionel Hampton to Thelonious Monk and everybody in between – managed to get their acts together in time for the session.
The atmosphere was one of happy chaos. Esquire art director Robert Benton (who later directed such films as Places in the Heart and Nobody's Fool) and photographer Art Kane (on his first professional assignment) spent a couple of hours trying to get the milling players to pose.
The musicians viewed the enterprise as a gigantic family reunion, a chance to hobnob with colleagues and renew old acquaintances. It was a warm, wonderful way to spend a morning.
And the Oscar-nominated Great Day... is a warm, wonderful documentary.
Filmmakers Jean Bach and Matthew Seig draw from several sources: still photos of that day, 8mm home movies of the event shot by jazzman Milt Hinton and his wife, interviews with the participants, and archival footage of these performers.
In the memories of these men and women, that "great day" has taken on an almost mythic status, not only for the bonhomie it generated but because never again would so many world-class musical geniuses be assembled in one place.
The unsung hero of this film is editor Susan Peehl, who has taken the somewhat fragmentary comments of the aging interview subjects (jazzmen typically communicate more effectively through their instruments than they do verbally) and woven them into the spoken-word equivalent of a great jazz arrangement.
Thus two or three individuals may contribute words and phrases that have been carefully assembled by Peehl to make up a complete sentence, and the effect is that of musicians improvising on a theme.
The film exudes a love of jazz and an admiration for these artists that is absolutely intoxicating. You don't have to love jazz to love this movie, but A Great Day in Harlem could be the first step in a romance with the music.
Other films in the series “Hollywood's Music”
Mondays at 6:30 p.m.:
- April 1: 8 Mile (2002) Rated R
- April 8: Mo' Better Blues (1990) Rated R
- April 15: Cadillac Records (2008) Rated R
- April 22: Coal Miner's Daughter (1980) Rated PG
- April 29: The Mambo Kings (1992) Rated R
Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:
- April 6: Leadbelly (1976) Rated PG
- April 13: A Great Day In Harlem (1994) Not Rated
- April 20: American Graffiti (1973) Rated PG
- April 27: Every Little Step (2008) Rated PG-13
Admission to these films is free.
The series complements the six-week program America’s Music: A Film History of Our Popular Music from Blues to Bluegrass to Broadway.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.