Hello, everybody. Joe Morella and Frank Segers, your classic movie guys, confessing today that we don’t often venture into music DVD’s even if the name Artie Shaw — equally renowned today for his Hollywood wives as for his music — crops up.
Today is an exception, though Shaw is conspicuous by his absence. Getting to the point: we are here today to praise one of the best — if not the best — music DVD Frank (our resident jazz aficionado) has ever seen or heard.
The title is A Great Day In Harlem, a documentary produced by Jean Bach and narrated by Quincy Jones.
For nearly a quarter century, Bach was the producer of actress Arlene Francis’ radio show, which aired over New York station WOR. A woman of broad social connections and apparent means, Bach was also amazingly knowledgeable about the history of jazz, and the (mostly) men who made it.
Pianist Bobby Short, a close friend for many years, regarded Bach as “by far the most elegant and beautiful and sharply intelligent person I had ever met.”
Like many jazz fans with memories of the Forties and Fifties, Bach was struck by the amazing photograph taken by Art Kane one August morning in 1958 on the front of a Harlem brownstone on 126th Street, between Fifth and Madison Avenues.
The photo, perhaps the most famous in jazz history, shows 57 musicians and a dozen children from the neighborhood at their respective leisure and spread in reverse T formation over the street and up the brownstone steps. It is a marvelous shot.
Pictured in this unusual gathering (the photo staged as a promotion for an Esquire jazz issue) was an astoundingly rich and comprehensive roster of key jazz performers — Count Basie, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Roy Eldridge, Charles Mingus, Art Farmer, Dizzy Gillespie, Gene Krupa, Jo Jones, Art Blakey, Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins, Oscar Pettiford, Gerry Mulligan, and Horace Silver among many, many others, BUT not Artie Shaw.
Bach’s documentary shows how this extraordinary assemblage was accomplished (it wasn’t easy) and provides informed introductions to each of the 57 participants. Her knowledge of the subject proves truly encyclopedic.
A Great Day in Harlem, was first released on VHS in 1995. But, by all means, seek out the later DVD edition, It is a great day for music fans.
Back to Artie Shaw. On July 24, 1938, he and his big band ensemble stepped into a studio and recorded its version of Begin The Beguine. It was a huge hit, and everything changed for Shaw. His international fame became such that at one point, Time magazine published a line noting that to the average German, America at the time meant sky-scrapers, Clark Gable and Artie Shaw.
Then came a bombshell third marriage, to Lana Turner from February 1940 until the following September. (The most conceited, unpleasant man I ever met, Lana said later.) Two marriages later, Shaw was at a Hollywood party when the wife of actor Van Heflin introduced him a promising starlet on the rise by the name of Ava Gardner. She had been listening to his music, loving his music, since she was sixteen or so,” wrote Gardner biographer Lee Server. It was like meeting a god.
Their marriage (she was wife No. 5) lasted a few weeks more than a year, just a bit less than average for Shaw’s four marriages until then. The longest of his eight unions was his last, to actress Evelyn Keyes. The union lasted a relative eternity, 28 years until 1985.
In any case, Shaw (who played the clarinet) was not in the least pleased by Bach’s documentary, which includes a prediction from saxophonist Bud Freeman that in 100 years, the jazz clarinetist who will be best remembered is the little known Pee Wee Russell.
What? Not Artie Shaw? When Jean Bach visited Shaw after A Great Day In Harlem was released, Shaw expressed his displeasure. How dare she allow Freeman’s statement to go unchallenged?
Interestingly, the much wed Shaw was not married at the time of his death in 2004 at the ripe age of 94.
Jean Bach was the very same age when she died on May 27 of this year.