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Timeless Jazz Photo Marks Time

With each passing year, memories of a photograph taken in New York City on a hot August morning in 1958, become just a little bit sweeter. VOA's Doug Levine takes us back to "A Great Day In Harlem."

On a day not unlike a sultry, steamy summer day in Washington, D.C., the concrete steps of a brownstone apartment building on 126th Street in New York's Harlem neighborhood became the setting for the jazz photograph seen around the world. It was there that 57 giants of jazz gathered at 10:00 o'clock in the morning to have their picture taken.

Rookie photographer Art Kane, on assignment from Esquire magazine, couldn't believe how many musicians actually showed up. And on time! Nobody was more surprised than filmmaker Jean Bach, who documented the photo shoot in her 1995 Oscar-nominated film, A Great Day In Harlem.

"Apparently they did start at 10 a.m. which gave rise to one of the laugh lines in the movie," she said. "Somebody said he didn't know there were two 10 o'clocks in the same day. They were so amazed it was in the morning. But when the sun changed they moved across the street. So, Art had two, more or less, identical houses facing each other and he moved from one to the other. He selected it because he liked the idea of the stairs. They could make kind of a pyramid that way and you get to see all the faces. And, as he points out, all but one."

The one face you don't see belonged to trumpeter Roy Eldridge.

"Roy absolutely mesmerized Dizzy Gillespie, and Dizzy was always playing tricks on him," Bach said. "Trumpet players of that era were all insane about Roy Eldridge, and Dizzy was no exception. So just to needle [tease] Roy a little bit, Roy turned around to say something to him, and Dizzy stuck his tongue out. Roy didn't get his face in the photograph. You see a kind of side-back view of his head."

"When this movie came out [it] swept around the world," she continued. "I mean it was being shown everyplace. Every city that it played [in] decided to do a copycat photo. 'A Great Day In Harlem' was all the musicians of the day, mainly based in New York. But now we have every city in the world, including one from Amsterdam, which I love because they spell it "A Great Day In Harlem" with two a's."

A Great Day In Harlem, now on DVD, includes the original one-hour documentary plus five new segments: Art Kane, The Copycat Photos, The Next Generation: Bill Charlap and Kenny Washington, and profiles of all 57 musicians titled Explore The Photos.