Harlem documentary offers insight into black culture, jazz

Kristen Whitehurst

Black and white video, still photography, music, and personal anecdotes tell the story behind Art Kane’s famous photo of 58 jazz musicians taken outside a New York brownstone in 1958. The documentary “A Great Day in Harlem,” shown in the Armer Theater last week, takes an intimate look behind the personalities and characters of jazz’s best known artists.

The documentary, directed by jazz fan Jean Bach includes interviews with musicians such as Dizzie Gillespie, Sonny Rollins, writer Ernie Wilkins, and many others who appeared in Kane’s photograph, first published in Esquire magazine’s January 1959 issue.

The film was planned for screening by Dr. John Schultheiss, professor and chair of the Cinema and Television Arts department.

Various departments within the Mike Curb College of Arts, Media and Communication were involved in the screening, including Dr. Kent Kirkton, chair of the Journalism department, Fred Johnson, general manager of CSUN’s radio station, KCSN, and music professor Ronald Cunha.

Jazz historian and photographer Maxie Floyd took part in the panel discussion following the film, in which his own work and photos of famous jazz performers from the Center for Ethnic and Alternative Media were showcased.

The film is part of CSUN’s cinematheque, a screening program used to showcase various films for academic enrichment.

The department tries to arrange something every year for black history month, and chose the film in an effort to enlighten students.

“I was hoping to get across that in the 30s and 40s, jazz was the dominant musical art form in our culture,” Schultheiss said.

Others stressed the significance of jazz history captured by Kane.

“The click of a camera lens, the culmination of American history,” said Fred Johnson, general manager of the CSUN campus radio station KCSN, when discussing Kane’s photo.

Kane’s expectations were exceeded when the group of musicians actually showed up on an early August morning in response to his request for a picture.

This film captures the creative process involved in taking the picture and developments that led to it, Schultheiss said.

“It began to build into something beyond the original notion of it,” said Schultheiss, referring to how the picture has become one of the most recognizable jazz photos in history.

The film is filled with the images of various jazz artists, exploring various artists and their music. Careful editing incorporates live performances of pianist Lucky Roberts, singer Maxine Sullivan, drummer Art Blakey, and others in between interviews in which their talents are discussed by other artists.

Artists such as Gillespie, Mary McPartland, and Milt Hinton talk lovingly about the talent of their fellow artists, commenting on their gestures and habits, and reminiscing about their own memories of the past.

From beginning to end, music permeates the film, from the sounds of raging trumpets and seductive saxophones, to smooth fingers caressing piano keys. The unique style of each musician serves as the soundtrack, setting the tone of the documentary, allowing your ears to make a connection with the visual images of the artists on the screen.

Capturing the artists’ looks, demeanor, and clothing in pictures is essential in gaining insight about them, he said.

“Photography is very important in categorizing the history of jazz,” said Floyd, who has photographed jazz musicians for about 50 years, and was a founding member of the Jazz Photographers Association.

The audience responded to the stories told by various artists, such as Gillespie and Wilkins, with laughs and smiles.

“I liked the personal side of it because that’s the part I don’t know,” said music professor Ronald Cunha, who participated in the panel discussion following the film.