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DVD Review: A Great Day in Harlem

By Tony Gieske

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photo The newly released additional material on the new two-disc set of Jean Bach's monumental documentary, first released in 1995, brings us two more hours of brief video profiles of the idols in the 1958 photo by Art Kane of 59 great musicians on a Harlem street, said to be the greatest jazz photo ever taken.

After you've seen all this stuff, it's hard to argue with that.

In addition to the Oscar-nominated film itself, the Home Vision Entertainment release from Image Entertainment carries new featurettes "Art Kane," "Bill Charlap and Kenny Washington," "Copycat Photos" and "Stories from the Making of 'A Great Day in Harlem.'" Altogether, they provide an illustrated and audio-enhanced capsule history of the most creative period in jazz, the 1930s, '40s and '50s.

The photo itself serves as an interactive frontispiece in which the viewer can cursor around the picture, bringing up the name of each musician as he is rolled over. Click on the one you want, and it is illuminated in red. Click again, and his buddies from back in the day appear to give their generally poignant or witty memories of him. If necessary, the brilliant and ingenious producer/director Bach herself will provide a career rundown.

Click on the photo of Coleman Hawkins, for instance, and up comes the story of his famous recording of "Body and Soul," another signal event in jazz history. You get the names and photos of all the musicians who felt they had to learn this landmark saxophone solo, the fact that when transcribed and printed in Down Beat, it required two issues, and the fate of one of Hawkins' greatest admirers, Rex Stewart, the growl cornetist from Duke Ellington's band. Learning that Hawkins was a big eater, Stewart decided to do the same, and gained an uncomfortable amount of body weight. His soul remained the same, though, and he eventually took up writing.

Click on Buck Clayton, the Count Basie trumpet soloist, and Bach appears to tell you that he had beautiful green eyes and that Billie Holiday said he was the prettiest man she had ever seen. He, too, took up writing when some dental work went wrong and he could no longer play. "Every single number was like a classic arrangement," someone says, citing "One O'Clock Jump," with its daring key change, as a shining example.

Roll over Stuff Smith, the violinist, and you learn from bandmate Jonah Jones that "Stuff would be high all day and all night. ... It was a $10 fine if you showed up sober."

Editor Susan Peehl and co-producer Matthew Seig have done some exciting and some merely strange montage, but you can never rest your eyes lest you miss something like a beautiful photograph of the beautiful Laurence Brown, the Ellington trombonist who wrote "Sophisticated Lady," or Bach's friend, the equally beautiful Ivie Anderson, the former Ellington vocalist. It is studded with such gems.

Among the many musicians who didn't show for the picture was the cornetist Jimmy McPartland, whose wife, Marian McPartland, the pianist, said she rolled him over numerous times, but he would roll back in bed and say it's too early (10 a.m.). "If I'd known it was going to be so historic, I would have dragged him over there sheets and all," she laments.

Buy "A Great Day in Harlem" at 28% off.

Tony Gieske is jazz reviewer and copy editor at The Hollywood Reporter

Reprinted, with permission, from The Hollywood Reporter

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