Jazz On A Summer's Day

1959, Movie, NR, 81 mins


Celebrated commercial/fashion photographer Bert Stern directed the classic JAZZ ON A SUMMER'S DAY, a superb record of the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival. Shot and edited in a freeform, impressionistic manner that juxtaposes candid observations of the town and the audience with the music, the film served as a template for the style of all future concert movies.

A virtual Who's Who of the world of jazz and blues perform the following songs at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival held in Rhode Island: saxophonist Jimmy Giuffre and his trio ("Train and the River"); pianist Thelonius Monk ("Blue Monk"); saxophonist Sonny Stitt and guitarist Sal Salvador ("Blues"); scat-singer Anita O'Day ("Sweet Georgia Brown" and "Tea for Two"); pianist George Shearing and his quintet ("Rondo"); singer Dinah Washington ("All of Me"); saxophonist Gerry Mulligan and his quartet ("Catch as Catch Can"); singer Big Maybelle ("I Ain't Mad at You"); singer-guitarist Chuck Berry ("Sweet Little Sixteen"); drummer Chico Hamilton and his quintet ("Blue Sands"); singer and trumpeter Louis Armstrong ("Lazy River," "Tiger Rag" and "When the Saints Go Marching In"); Armstrong doing a duet with singer- trombonist Jack Teagarden ("Rockin' Chair"); gospel singer Mahalia Jackson ("Shout All Over," "Didn't It Rain," and "The Lord's Prayer"); and a finale featuring a mixed sextet ("Dixieland").

Although JAZZ ON A SUMMER'S DAY only took four days to shoot, with neophyte director Stern and his two fellow cinematographers filming simultaneously, editor Aram Avakian required another six months to assemble the miles of footage (and acccording to his brother George, who served as the film's Musical Director, Avakian was practically a co-director as well). He did a masterful job of weaving the disparate elements into a poetic and lyrical whole, and his work here led to a distinguished career as a Hollywood editor (THE MIRACLE WORKER, MICKEY ONE, LILITH), and he would later direct a number of films, including the provocative END OF THE ROAD (1970) and the underrated COPS AND ROBBERS (1973). In any case, the film was obviously a successful collaboration, and the result is not only an exhilarating record of some of the best musicians of all time, but also a marvelously evocative portrait of a time and place. Interspersing colorful views of Newport and its citizens and visitors, along with the nearby America Cup yacht races, the film beautifully captures the laid-back, joyous atmosphere of the town, the festival, and the audience, all in harmony.

In any concert film, the ultimate judge of its worth is the quality of its performers, and they're all in peak form here. Among the standouts are the resplendent Anita O'Day, scat-singing while clad in white gloves and a large feathered-hat; a too-short set by Thelonius Monk; Big Maybelle belting out "I Ain't Mad at You"; Chuck Berry's manic version of "Sweet Little Sixteen," (with the other musicians looking at him as though he's at the wrong concert); and the powerfully soulful gospel numbers by Mahalia Jackson that close the film, turning it into a celebration where music is a religion and vice-versa. The undoubted highlight, however, is Louis Armstrong, who rips through a three-number medley, then does a comical duet with Jack Teagarden, and jokes to the audience about his recent tour in Italy, during which he met the Pope, who asked him if he had any children, to which he replied: "No, daddy, but we're still wailing."

Some jazz purists have objected to the film's use of numerous cutaways to the crowd and the boat race (and for failing to film such key performers as Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, and Ray Charles), but the film is not only about jazz, but also, as its title states, about a summer's day, as well. Children playing on the beach; colors reflecting in the water; breathtaking aerial views of sailboats; intense audience members bopping their heads and snapping their fingers to the music; beatniks and hipsters smoking, drinking, and dancing on roofs; invading sports cars speeding past mom-and-pop jalopies--they're all rhythmically integrated with the music to create a kind of visual equivalent of jazz, and taken together, form a fascinating, electrifying, and invaluable social document. leave a comment

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