Jean Bach, who has died aged 94, neither played nor sang, but as an energetic radio producer and party-giver was a significant figure in the social world that surrounded American jazz and cabaret. In particular, she brought together the survivors of a celebrated Fifties group photograph for the documentary film A Great Day in Harlem, released to widespread acclaim in 1994.
In August 1958 a group of jazz musicians had assembled for a group photograph on East 126th Street in Harlem for what has become a celebrated image. Robert Benton, later a well-known film director, was then art director of Esquire and wanted to run a series of jazz photographs; the photographer Art Kane came up with the idea of a group picture in Harlem, the source of so much jazz. Word of the project spread among musicians, some of whom managed to make it to the rendezvous at 10am (famously, one remarked that he had never realised that there are two 10 o’clocks in the day).
Among the 58 musicians who assembled there were Sonny Rollins, Art Farmer, Count Basie, Buck Clayton, Roy Eldridge, Gene Krupa, Dizzy Gillespie, Maxine Sullivan, Art Blakey, Gerry Mulligan, Horace Silver, Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins — and, to everyone’s surprise, Thelonius Monk.
In the late 1980s it occurred to Jean Bach, by then retired from radio, that only a few of these musicians were still alive. She also discovered that the wife of the bassist and jazz photographer Milt Hinton had made a home movie of the 1958 shoot. Using this as a basis, Jean Bach set about interviewing the surviving musicians on film, coming up with some 60 hours’ worth of material .
For 18 months she and the editor Susan Peehl worked on creating A Great Day in Harlem . Their exertions were more than worthwhile, for rarely has the spirit of jazz been so well caught as in this freewheeling, knowledgeable and exuberant film, which was nominated for an Academy Award.
In 1997 Jean Bach made a 21-minute film called The Spitball Story, about the famous incident in 1941 when Dizzy Gillespie was fired for allegedly shooting spitballs on stage at his boss, the bandleader Cab Calloway. Jean Bach’s film (which won several awards) revealed that the real culprit had been the trumpeter Jonah Jones.
Jean Bach was born Jean Enzinger on September 27 1918 in Chicago, but was brought up in Milwaukee. She once likened her parents, George and Gertrude Enzinger, to a Scott Fitzgerald couple, and she remembered the household in the Twenties as an endless party. Her mother was the daughter of the Canadian buckwheat entrepreneur FF Cole, but despite this the family appeared to have little money . All was well in the marriage as long as there were parties, but — as in a Fitzgerald story — it all went wrong during the Depression, and her parents divorced in 1936.
Her mother married again, to the lawyer Eric Passmore, while her father married the dancer Irene Castle. Jean, meanwhile, had attended school in Chicago, before going on to Vassar, from which she dropped out to take a job as a society columnist on the Chicago Times and then The American magazine. Although her target readership was the debutante-type, she began to include coverage of the music at their parties and also had a record column.
Chicago was then a central jazz location, and Jean soon knew all the musicians who played there. Elsewhere, she saw Billie Holiday when she was singing with the Basie band: “I ran into her in the ladies’ room. I was gushy, and she wasn’t too enchanted.”
Jean had a lifelong enthusiasm for the work of Duke Ellington. She saw all but one performance of his month-long engagement at the Hotel Sherman in Chicago in 1940, and particularly relished being at the recording session where he and Jimmy Blanton made their duets (Ellington had said to her: “Come around. I have a novelty — a bass player who plays in tune.”)
The following year she met the swing trumpeter Shorty Sherock when he was playing with Gene Krupa at the Three Deuces. Within a few weeks they were married, and moved to Los Angeles. Sherock, however, lost his place with Krupa and had to sell his golf clubs, while his new wife had to flog her pearls. After he found work with another band, he and Jean criss-crossed the country in some discomfort, she taking charge of transport, food, money and music scores. The marriage was under strain, and ended in 1945.
Jean moved to New York, and married the television producer Bob Bach. She later looked back on that musical era and its small clubs with affection: “No hostile freezing out as the boppers were later to affect. Jazz was accessible… it didn’t occur to anyone that bigger might be better. [It was] a time when less was most definitely more.”
She worked as a radio scriptwriter; in public relations; for an art gallery; and as a press agent. By 1960, however, she was in the more congenial world of the Arlene Francis radio show, with which she would long be associated as a producer and occasional presenter.
The show ranged widely across the arts, and Jean Bach ensured that all the guests were generously treated by their inquisitors. For many years she gave excellent parties at her spacious house on 8th Street — one of which was to celebrate her 40-year friendship with the cabaret singer and pianist Bobby Short. They had met in Chicago in 1942, when he was still in his teens. Short recalled hearing her “mimic an entire saxophone solo from an Ellington record”.
Like Short, Jean Bach had a joie de vivre which could not fail to inspire all who met her. Aware that so many laboured under a darker cloud, she produced a cheap paperback called 200 Ways to Conquer “The Blues”.
Jean Bach’s husband predeceased her in 1985.
Jean Bach, born September 27 1918, died May 27 2013