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all that jazz

In 1958, an unknown, amateur photographer by the name of Art Kane let it be known that he planned to take a picture commemorating the golden age of jazz in a special issue of Esquire magazine. The shoot was going to be early, at about ten in the morning, so he feared a weak turnout, since jazz musicians were notorious for sleeping all day and playing into the early hours of the morning. As it turns out, however, the great musicians did show up, and the young photographer captured on film what would become one of the most famous photographs of jazz legends ever taken. Of those who came, Dizzy Gillespie, Art Farmer, Horace Silver, and Thelonius Monk were but a handful of the most well-known, and never again would such an event take place which would so perfectly illustrate the proud history of jazz music.

Thirty-one years later in 1989, a woman named Jean Bach took it upon herself to pay tribute to that day in Harlem by using film to tell the story of those musicians who participated in the shoot. A jazz historian and somewhat of a jazz groupie in her college years, Bach developed a special relationship with a number of the most famous artists, and she translated her enthusiasm for the music into one of the most critically celebrated documentaries of last year, A Great Day In Harlem. Harlem received an Oscar nomination, and it won a Gold Hugo Award in the Chicago International Film Festival.

In all honesty, I knew nothing of jazz music before speaking to Jean Bach and seeing Harlem. A few names, such as Dizzy Gillespie and Count Basie, were familiar to me as they probably are to most people, but I really didn't know who they were or even what their work was like. To me, jazz has always been Harry Connick, Jr. concerts and the occasional Bradford Marsales performance back when he was on the Tonight Show. As a result, I was a bit intimidated at the thought of interviewing a woman whose life has been guided by her passion and knowledge of jazz when I knew so little about it and had not even seen her film. Regardless, I put together a couple of questions to ask this remarkable filmmaker, and I quickly discovered to what extent Jean Bach truly loves the people, the music, and the culture that is jazz.

In a few words, tell me what jazz music means to you?

Jazz was great joy, great happiness, and everything was full of swing. Most of what comes out today doesn't swing like it used to.

You spent about four years and $400,000 of your own money finding the musicians who were in the 1958 picture and filming them. Was it a difficult decision to make such a large financial and time consuming commitment in making this documentary?

Truthfully, before I started the project I was not aware of how much time and money it would take to do what I wanted. This being my first time to make a film, I just thought that I would go out and interview a few people that I had known for a long time anyway, so I didn't expect for it to be a big deal. The most expensive part of making the film was getting the rights to the musical numbers which we included. There are twenty-three different numbers in the film, and we had to buy the rights for each one. If I learned something, it's that you shouldn't use music when making a film.

Financially, it wasn't always easy to get what we wanted. For example, there was one number that I wanted to include in the film, but the people who owned the rights to it wanted $100,000. Well, obviously we couldn't pay twenty-three different parties $100,000, so we had to make some serious decisions about what to include and what not to include in the film.

How did you feel when you discovered that A Great Day In Harlem had been nominated for an Oscar?

I feel that I've been dreaming since we finished it. When I was first told about the nomination, it was asleep, and I didn't really absorb what was being told to me. The person who let me know told everyone that I must not have cared very much because I didn't have that much to say.

As one who has been nominated for an Oscar, I consider you somewhat of an authority on documentary film, so I must ask you if you saw the film Hoop Dreams, which many critics had claimed to be snubbed by the Academy last year?

I did see Hoop Dreams , and I thought that it was an excellent film. As for it being snubbed, yes, I feel that it was. There is a sort of clique which decides which films receive nominations, and, for one reason or another, someone didn't like Hoop Dreams or had some kind of a problem with it.

Do you have any advice for aspiring young filmmakers?

Think about it before you do it. There are several things to consider, such as getting the rights to music which I mentioned before. As far as documentary film goes, people do not make documentaries for money. I once spoke on a panel of documentary filmmakers, and one person asked if we made a lot of money. Of course, the entire panel couldn't stop laughing. The truth is that people who get involved with documentary films do so because they have a love of something which they wish to capture on film.

Do you have any interesting anecdotes about some of the musicians in the film?

Actually, I have a funny story about Charles Mingus. In 1960, I discovered that a film had been made in England in which Charles had a small role. Once I decided to make A Great Day In Harlem, I knew that I wanted to get a copy of the film. Apparently, one of the stars of the film was so concerned about her performance that she tried to buy up any proof that the film was made. Luckily, I finally got hold of a copy of the film and included some shots of Charles Mingus.

Are you considering a follow-up project?

Yes. I'm currently working on a CD-ROM which will include a lot of the footage which we were unable to include in the final cut of the film. There are several stories and interviews which didn't make it for one reason or another, and those will all be available.

After seeing A Great Day In Harlem, I felt suddenly aware of a culture that I had never known before. My ignorance was not only of the music but of the beautiful society which had formed itself around the love for jazz. Each successive interview in the film gave me a greater sense of enlightenment, and I found a need to know these legends even though I had been ignorant of even their names just a few minutes before.

Harlem is a fast-paced, tremendously informative delight, fueled by its charismatic subject matter and its devotion to a time lost, but not forgotten. Never before, and likely never again, will such an impressive collection of talent and greatness be assembled to represent the jazz musicians whose legacy has become so important to music. At one point in the film, one of the musicians being interviewed makes the comment that "even though the picture was a still, it was alive and moving." That's the way that these people were. From each person's distinctive presence and clearly mutual, deep respect for one another, one could feel the sense community, class, charm, and importance that had developed within this elite circle of musicians. They were full of life, and life rewarded them with a legacy which will exist forever.

Before seeing A Great Day In Harlem, I did not understand what the big deal was. I was not familiar with the music or the musicians, and I had little if any interest in increasing my familiarity of the subject. However, now, very much thanks to Jean Bach's celebrated film, I somehow understand what these people were about. They thrived on happiness and on the privilege of hearing each other play, and they found immortality in the hearts of their listeners.


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