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The Modlin Center presents an evening of film and performance celebrating the golden age of jazz. 

That Magic Moment

"A Great Day in Harlem," an Academy Award-nominated documentary about the late '50s golden age of New York jazz, will be given a special screening next Monday night, Nov. 8, at the Modlin Center for the Performing Arts. A performance by tenor saxophone great Johnny Griffin will follow. The evening promises to be one of the high points of Richmond's jazz year.

"Great Day" is not really about a day but a single moment in a summer morning in 1958, captured in an extraordinary photograph. New York jazz musicians gathered at 126th and Lennox for a group shot to be featured in an all-jazz issue of Esquire magazine. First-time professional photographer Art Kane's photo became legendary — a portrait of a community composed of the premier players in the history of the music.

The unlikely story of the assembly of that shutter-sliced moment is told through a weave of photos, participant memories, snippets of filmed and recorded performances and even a home movie.

The intimacy of the film comes from producer Jean Bach's long experience with the New York jazz scene. As a Vassar undergraduate student in the late 1930s, she regularly rode the train into Harlem, attending shows and meeting the musicians. She was charmed by Duke Ellington, became a close friend of Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie, and was even, for a time, married to a big band leader. Bach's vision and Susan Peehl's masterful editing give the film a conversational intimacy.

Reached by telephone, Bach said she would not be coming to Richmond's screening. "At my age, in my condition, travel is difficult. I could have better handled the absurd success that has come from this film 30 or 40 years ago." Since the film opened to rave reviews, awards and even an Oscar nomination, she has been invited to appear on the likes of "Charlie Rose" and "Good Morning America." "I try to limit my tours of duty," she confides.

Bach enjoyed a long, successful career in journalism and broadcasting, but had never made a film before. "I learned you don't make money with documentary films" she says, "but not until I was halfway through." The Esquire shot was a natural subject. "That photo has been around for a long time" she said, "just waiting for someone to deconstruct it. The film wrote itself. I'm surprised no one thought of it before."

There were other challenges. The rights to the music had to be secured, and the musicians, whose recollections are the heart of the movie, had to be located. Bach found and interviewed 30 of the surviving players, perhaps none more difficult to find than drummer Art Blakey.

"He didn't have an address in New York. I learned that when he came to town he would stay with his girlfriend. I would get a name and number and call, and invariably I would be connected to an angry woman who didn't know where he was but knew that he wasn't coming back. For a long time I was always one woman too late."

Bach eventually tracked Blakey down for an interview, just weeks before his death. Many of the other musicians are now gone as well. "A Great Day," like the photograph that inspired it, captures a vital glimpse of a vanishing world.

The original performer booked to appear with the film, Art Farmer, has since become too ill to appear, but his replacement Johnny Griffin is by no means a consolation choice. He catapulted to fame in the late '50s on the strength of his huge, blisteringly fast solos. He worked with many jazz legends, including Monk and Bud Powell, and led sessions that became classics. Now in his 70s, his playing has slowed if not mellowed, and he continues to produce fine
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