Jean Bach dies at 94; produced jazz documentary

June 9, 2013

On Aug. 12, 1958, in front of a brownstone in Harlem, 57 musicians gathered for a group photograph. It was perhaps the greatest collection of jazz talent ever assembled in one place.

Photographer Art Kane took a memorable black-and-white picture that was published in Esquire magazine. Three decades later, Jean Bach brought the photograph back to life.

Ms. Bach had been part of New York’s jazz world for decades as a hostess, knowledgeable fan, and friend to musicians. She had known Duke Ellington since she was a teenager and had worked in radio, but she had never before made a film.

It took five years for her and a few collaborators to weave together interviews, archival images, a home movie and music to create “A Great Day in Harlem,” a beguiling hour-long documentary that was released in 1994. Ms. Bach was 76 when her film was nominated for an Academy Award for best documentary.

Jazz writer Gary Giddins of the Village Voice called “A Great Day in Harlem” a “wonderful documentary that manages to evoke deep feelings with a resolutely light hand.”


Documentary filmmaker Jean Bach, with the 1958 photograph of New York City jazz musicians hanging behind her. (Thomas Monaster/New York Daily News)

Nearly 20 years later, it is considered one of the most sensitive, informative and beloved films ever made about jazz. Ms. Bach remained one of the most cheerful ambassadors of jazz almost until the day she died, May 27, at her home in New York City. She was 94.

Loren Schoenberg, a friend and artistic director of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, confirmed her death. The precise cause was not disclosed.

In 1958, Kane was a novice who had never taken a professional photograph. He asked musicians to gather on Harlem’s East 126th Street at 10 a.m. — an hour so early for jazz musicians that one of them said he didn’t know there were two 10 o’clocks in the same day.

As the musicians filtered in, they represented practically the entire history of jazz. The oldest was 71-year-old Luckey Roberts, who had been active since 1910 and was one of the inventors of the stride style of piano playing. The youngest was 27-year-old saxophonist Sonny Rollins, who remains one of the towering figures in jazz.

Kane shot 120 images of the group, which included such important musicians as Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Art Blakey, Charles Mingus, Gene Krupa, Mary Lou Williams, Gerry Mulligan, Roy Eldridge and Pee Wee Russell.

Count Basie sat on the curb with a dozen children from the neighborhood. A 58th musician, pianist Willie “The Lion” Smith, can be seen in outtakes, but he wandered out of the frame before the final image was shot.

Pianist Marian McPartland — who stands in the front row in a slinky dress — described the photograph to The Washington Post in 1995 as “the greatest jazz picture ever taken.”

Several musicians brought cameras with them that day in 1958, and one of them, bass player Milt Hinton, asked his wife to capture the proceedings on 8 mm color film.

In the late 1980s, when Ms. Bach learned of Hinton’s home movie, she arranged for volunteers to dig through his cluttered basement until they found it.

“And then it got kind of interesting,” she told the Associated Press in 1994.

She persuaded all the musicians in the photograph who were still living — more than 20 — to sit for interviews. The narrator of the film is Quincy Jones.

“No one eluded me,” she said in 1994, “because I’m mean and tough and persistent.”

Today, only four of the musicians survive: McPartland, Rollins, Benny Golson and Horace Silver.

Kane, the photographer, committed suicide in 1995, shortly after “A Great Day in Harlem” was nominated for an Academy Award.

Trying to sum up the multi-layered effect of “A Great Day in Harlem,” New Yorker jazz critic Whitney Balliett wrote: “It’s about the taking of the picture, and it’s also about mortality, loyalty, talent, music, beauty, and the fact that jazz musicians tend to be the least pretentious artists on Earth.”

Jean Enzinger was born Sept. 27, 1918, in Chicago. She grew up in Milwaukee and Chicago and described her parents as having the aura — and volatility — of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald.

While attending Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., Ms. Bach often took the train to New York to visit jazz clubs. She once walked up to Ellington’s house and spent the afternoon chatting with the Duke.

After leaving Vassar, Ms. Bach was a newspaper reporter in Chicago. In 1941, she married trumpeter Shorty Sherock and went on the road as his manager for several years before their divorce.

By 1948, she had settled in New York and married Bob Bach, a producer of the TV quiz show “What’s My Line?” He died in 1985.

Ms. Bach held jobs in public relations and at a gallery and, during the 1950s, was part of the payola scandal, in which record companies paid disc jockeys to play certain songs on the radio.

“I went around the country with a bag full of cash,” she told the Denver Post in 1995. “I’d go to a city, get in a cab, walk into a studio, shake the deejay’s hand and decide if he should have $25, $40 or $50.”

One of the few who turned her down, she said, was Dick Clark, who went on to become the TV host of “American Bandstand.”

From 1960 to 1984, Ms. Bach was the producer of Arlene Francis’s talk show on the New York radio station WOR. She procured guests, wrote the copy and often went on the air as a substitute host.

Ms. Bach’s home in Greenwich Village became known as a salon, where partygoers included Judy Garland, Lena Horne, James Baldwin, Norman Mailer, Gloria Vanderbilt, Jack Lemmon and Johnny Mercer. Cabaret star Bobby Short often played piano.

Many people found Ms. Bach, who was profiled in the New Yorker and on CBS Sunday Morning, at least as glamorous as her guests.

“Jean was by far the most elegant and beautiful and sharply intelligent person I had ever met,” Short told the New Yorker in 1983.

“Let’s put it this way,” said Schoenberg, a musician who knew Ms. Bach for more than 30 years. “Ingrid Bergman looked like Jean Bach, not the other way around.”

After the success of her first film, Ms. Bach produced a second jazz documentary in 1997, “The Spitball Story,” about an incident in which bandleader Cab Calloway fired Gillespie for onstage antics.

The aura of “A Great Day in Harlem” has never faded. An enhanced two-DVD version, with additional commentary and background material by Ms. Bach, was released in 2006.

Throughout the film, as musicians look at the photograph from 1958, they are transfixed by the faces that gaze back from the past.

“It’s fuzzy and warm and all those things that jazz isn’t supposed to be associated with,” Ms. Bach said in 1995. “To get all those giants together at one place, at one time — there never had been anything quite that cosmic and there likely won’t be again.”

Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004.
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