In 1958, Esquire magazine published Art Kane’s photograph of 57 jazz luminaries arrayed on the stoop of a Harlem brownstone. In 1995, Jean Bach’s documentary about the historic gathering, A Great Day in Harlem, was nominated for an Academy Award. Now, a film by Judy Chaikin, The Girls in the Band, has appropriated the iconic image as a window into the story of a group of musicians who didn’t make it into the legendary group portrait.
Early in Chaikin’s doc, the camera pans across a close-up of Kane’s who’s who of midcentury jazz, from old-time New Orleans veterans (Henry “Red” Allen) to swing-era stalwarts (Gene Krupa, Roy Eldridge) to pioneering modernists (Dizzy Gillespie, Gerry Mulligan, Thelonious Monk). After weaving through the throng of sports jackets, white shirts and neckties, it finally focuses on three summer-frocked figures: vocalist Maxine Sullivan and pianists Marian McPartland and Mary Lou Williams-the sole representatives of over half a century of female jazz performers.