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Jean Bach dies at 94; made Oscar-nominated jazz documentary

A 1958 photo of illustrious figures from jazz's golden age became the inspiration for Bach's 'A Great Day in Harlem,' which explained the magical convergence of dozens of New York music legends.

June 01, 2013|Elaine Woo
  • Documentary filmmaker Jean Bach in 2003. Bach co-wrote and directed "A Great Day in Harlem," which was nominated for an Academy Award. The 1994 film chronicles how art director Art Kane coordinated a group photograph (hanging behind her) of top jazz musicians in New York City in 1958.
Documentary filmmaker Jean Bach in 2003. Bach co-wrote and directed "A… (New York Daily News Archive,…)

Jean Bach first laid eyes on the astonishing photograph more than a decade after its 57 subjects — all illustrious figures from jazz's golden age — posed on the steps of a Harlem brownstone in the summer of 1958.

The photo eventually became Bach's obsession and the inspiration for "A Great Day in Harlem," a prize-winning, Oscar-nominated 1994 documentary that explains, through interviews and archival footage, how the magical convergence of dozens of New York jazz legends came to be.

"Only Jean could have put that film together because she knew everyone," Johnny Mandel, an arranger-composer for such artists as Count Basie, Frank Sinatra and Natalie Cole who helped choose the music for the project, told The Times last week. "She was the center of the whole jazz movement, from the 1940s until now. She has always been jazz's best friend."

Bach, a former longtime radio producer who often called herself one of the first jazz groupies, died Monday of natural causes at her New York City home, said a friend, photographer Carol Friedman. She was 94.

A fan since her teens, Bach indeed knew most of the musical titans and rising stars who answered Esquire magazine's call to be photographed for its January 1959 issue on jazz. She also knew the resulting portrait had a place in history after seeing copies of it around the world, including at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

What she didn't know until much later, she told the Washington Post in 1995, was "the crazy story behind it."

The fabled photo was taken by Art Kane, a hot young New York art director who was also a jazz aficionado. He was hired for the assignment by Esquire's graphics director, Robert Benton, who later directed such films as "Kramer vs. Kramer" and "Places in the Heart."

Kane, who had never taken a professional photo, had no idea how many musicians would show up at the appointed time of 10 a.m., when most jazz musicians, having been up most of the night playing their gigs, were asleep. It was such an unseemly hour that one of the film's subjects says he "didn't know there were two 10 o'clocks."

Miraculously, 58 musicians turned out on 126th Street, between Fifth and Madison

avenues. And a glorious bunch they were, representing the whole spectrum of jazz, from New Orleans to bebop.

The assembled giants — young, old, black, white — included Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, Roy Eldridge, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Gene Krupa, Thelonious Monk, Art Farmer, Art Blakey, Horace Silver, Gerry Mulligan, Charles Mingus and Sonny Rollins.

Of the 58, however, only 57 appear in the final shot. Willie "The Lion" Smith, a master of the jazz piano style known as Harlem stride, wandered off and was resting on a neighboring stoop when the shutter clicked.

Quincy Jones also missed the shoot but narrates the film, which zooms in and out of the tableau of jazz greats as it chronicles the extraordinary day.

At one end of the celebrated photo is Gillespie, impishly sticking his tongue out at fellow trumpeter Eldridge, who turned to look at him and is the only one not facing the camera. A few feet from Eldridge is Monk, as dissonant as his harmonies in dark glasses and a white jacket that helped him stand out. He is next to two of the three women in the group: Mary Lou Williams, who wrote scores for Gillespie and gave Monk informal piano lessons, and pianist Marian McPartland, fetching in a Marilyn Monroe-style dress. A weary Basie is pictured sitting on the curb, where he was joined by a dozen neighborhood children.

"It's as though you had … all the French Impressionists together," Bach, reflecting on the remarkable assemblage of talent, told National Public Radio in 1995.

The idea for a documentary came late to Bach, who was born Jean Enzinger in Chicago on Sept. 27, 1918. The daughter of an advertising executive and his wife, she entered Vassar College in 1936 but spent much of her time visiting Harlem's jazz clubs and meeting her idols, such as Duke Ellington, her first jazz crush. The enchantment was mutual.

"Here was this perfectly groomed, perfectly well-raised young girl from Vassar who was blond and blue-eyed and very, very pretty," singer-pianist Bobby Short, who met Bach in the 1940s, recalled in a 1999 interview on CBS. "And yet she could ... talk to you about Cootie Williams' last solo with a Duke Ellington recording."

In 1941 she married trumpeter Shorty Sherock and later managed his band. Divorced in 1947, she worked as a press agent and radio scriptwriter.

She married TV producer Bob Bach in 1948 and in time became a producer for the Arlene Francis show on WOR radio. She worked with Francis for 24 years, until 1984.

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