On this day a year ago, I got this place up and running with a quote from a Whitney Baillett essay. His Collected Works: A Journal of Jazz, 1954-2001 is a book I often turn to when blocked or when trying to sort out my thoughts. His essays on jazz are succinct, crisp, precise in their language but also lyrical and joyous. Whether he’s talking about a tonal cluster or Bix Beiderbecke’s drinking habits, he involves me in the life around which jazz is made. His essays breathe melody and fire. I’ll probably never finish the book—it’s 880 pages, and not the sort of thing you need to read in absolute order. Rather, it’s a tome I dip into from time to time, a book that reminds me that it’s a noble enterprise to be a critic, to attempt to describe the indescribable, to take the pulse of a work of art, and to see what that pulse says about us.
So it makes sense to kick this blog on into Year Two with some help from Balliett.
…The word went out on the jazz grapevine, and the musicians began trickling in on time, despite the heavy duty of being anywhere but in bed at ten in the morning. (Jazz musicians are night creatures; a musician at the shoot said he was astonished to discover that there were two ten o’clocks in each day.) Because they are peripatetic, jazz players sometimes don’t run into one another for years at a time; as the crowd swelled, so did the milling, the pressing of the flesh, the hugs, and the how-ya-beens. [Photographer Art] Kane started shooting anyway. Milt Hinton, a fine amateur photographer, handed his wife, Mona, his 8-mm movie camera and told her to aim it and press the button. He himself began taking stills; so did a student of Willie the Lion’s named Mike Lipskin. Eventually, the crowd formed a ragged line on the sidewalk between two high brownstone stoops. Then, with Kane pleading and shouting from across the street, part of the group, led by Red Allen, rose up onto the stoop in between, so that the assemblage resembled an upside-down “T.”
That’s from “Harlem Morning,” a 1995 essay about the making of the greatest photograph in jazz history. Balliett draws you into that August morning, 1958, when almost 60 of the world’s greatest jazz musicians and composers, covering several generations and genres, came together to be photographed. His tone is as casual and relaxed as the photograph looks, so full of offhand details and dry quips that it feels like you’re sharing a reminiscence with him over drinks at a hotel bar. Balliett wasn’t even there, but it doesn’t show.
The essay meanders slyly, as Balliett’s prose tends to do, into its real subject: the funny and charming A Great Day in Harlem, Jean Bach’s documentary about the August 1958 photo. The photo itself was miraculous; it’s hard to believe that it happened at all. By his own admission in the movie, Kane hadn’t photographed before to save his life. While he was a fan of jazz, he really didn’t have the connections to pull giants like Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, Mary Lou Williams, Thelonious Monk (an eccentric if there ever was one; he arrived two hours later because he was deciding what to wear), and Roy Eldridge together for this. While most of these musicians were based in New York, they were often elsewhere—on tour or in the studio. And, again, it was scheduled for ten in the morning.
In a way, Bach’s movie is even more miraculous. She tracked down the 12 musicians in the photograph who were still alive, corralled them into her apartment, and interviewed them about the day. Hinton was still alive at the time—he died in 2000—and she deftly interweaves his footage of the day into her material. Along with judiciously selected clips of the musicians playing, Bach creates a cinematic exchange of ideas. It feels like a freewheeling conversation between the past and the present, with still-lively artists telling stories (mostly hilarious) on themselves and others.
Dizzy Gillespie is just as ebullient in Bach’s footage as he was in August 1958, and it’s no surprise that the trumpeter’s inspired but insightful clowning is the movie’s core. But others get their say. Saxophone genius Sonny Rollins reveals a rare strand of nervousness—he was just a kid at the time of the photo, and was understandably awed to be in the presence of tenor saxophonist Lester Young. Marian McPartland recalls that Monk stood next to her and Williams because he figured he’d be in the spotlight if he was standing next to pretty girls.
It’s about the taking of the picture, and it’s also about mortality, loyalty, talent, musical beauty, and the fact that jazz musicians tend to be least pretentious artists on earth.
The photo is, in the end, the springboard for the musicians to riff on the jazz life, on a culture based on improvisation both musical and economic—few of those photographed had pension plans; the life is invigorating, but it’s also hardscrabble and often hand-to-mouth. The editing, by Susan Peehl, is so quick that we think that the musicians are actually talking to each other, even though the footage was all shot separately, and that they’re spinning the records we hear as they talk. Bach puts a microscope to the photograph, and discovers riches that even she didn’t expect.
I feel the same way about Balliett’s essay. He captures the scene of that photo, glides into a brief, terrific discussion of the film and its aesthetics, gently taps into a profile of Bach, and then floats into a journalistically sound examination of how the movie got made. Throughout, there are anecdotes by Bach that could have only been gleaned by someone (Balliett) who has lived with jazz for a lifetime. The piece ends deftly with more images from the film, and a quote from it by Art Farmer that brings it all back home.
That’s pretty damn great for a four-page write-up. It got me to rent the DVD, even though I hadn’t even heard of the movie until I read the essay. Balliett’s “Harlem Morning” is the sort of essay I aspire towards on this blog. I almost always fail, but it’s a worthy goal.