Jazz on a Summer’s Day (1959)

Jazz on a Summer’s Day (1959)

Run time: 85 min | Documentary, Music
Director: Bert Stern
Writers: Albert D’Annibale, Arnold Perl
Stars: Louis Armstrong, Mahalia Jackson, Chuck Berry
Storyline
The Newport Jazz Festival of 1958 is the setting for this superbly edited account of the exciting, festive air generated by a host of talents. A must for jazz aficionados!

4 Comments

  1. tfsadmin

    September 16, 2015 at 8:14 am

    Bert Stern captures the Newport Jazz festival of 1958 in vivid color and with clarity. While jazz is the primary focus of the film, Stern does meander to the America’s Cup race that was being contested off Newport at the time, along with some diversionary local flavor, which gives us a sense of what it was like to actually be there. Continuing along this vein, during the festival itself, Stern spends much of his camera time observing the audience caught unaware reacting to jazz on a summer day; after all, live music does not exist in a vacuum. It’s this footage along with the incredible jazz music that makes this documentary really special. As a viewer we get to react to the music, and react to the audience reacting to the music. That girl with the seductively cute smile in the yellow dress, and that gruff man hiding behind the shades with the nervous twitch are people that we can connect to from our own personal experiences at open air summer concerts. The feeling of community one gets as the music breaks down the barriers and the sun begins to set. Stern allows his moving compositions to develop and flesh out the character of his subjects, giving us a nostalgic feeling for a time gone by that may have occurred long before we were even born. It does not matter because we are there! But this particular slice of time has special significance, because jazz would soon be replaced in popularity by Rock & Roll. We watch it happen before our eyes as a young Chuck Berry takes the stage. Backed by some excellent jazz musicians, all looking “amused” but not taking very seriously the music that would knock them off the charts for good within a couple of years. As Berry’s classic Rock & Roll riffs project across the audience, young people spontaneously jump to their feet and start moving to the rhythm while their parents watch, perplexed.

  2. IMDBReviewer

    September 16, 2015 at 8:14 am

    I think you can enjoy this film on a few levels.

    First, it's a great chronicle of mid-century music. Although nominally a jazz festival, producer George Wein put Berry, a rock 'n roll star, and Jackson, the leading gospel singer of her day, on the roster, probably to attract a larger crowd.

    The images are superb. If you're over 50, you probably recall Bert Stern's photography. It was a pinnacle of mid-century advertising (the Smirnoff ad shot in the Egyptian desert with the pyramid, inverted, in a refreshingly cool vodka martini glass with a twist). It was his stills of Sue Lyons in Stanley Kubrick's version of Lolita that everyone remembers. Almost everyone has seen his iconic nude photo shoot of Marilyn Monroe ("The Last Sitting").

    Here you have the still photographer's sensibility brought to a documentary. You can see the same thing in Ken Burns' earlier works for the same reason. The tight shots of the performers using very long lenses (something that was not yet common in film but was emerging on TV at the time). The long, languid, at times voyeuristic shots of the audience. The Festival was taking place at the same time as the America's Cup trials. Stern shot some of this from a Piper Cub (inexpensive to rent and almost as slow as a helicopter), and there are some long cutaways to this footage. At times, the images on the screen resemble the LP covers of the era – the original "Miles Ahead" cover, for example, featuring the beautiful (white) model on a sailboat (which Davis despised).

    The mono sound is surprisingly good given the circumstances, probably because the audio track was engineered and recorded by Columbia Records, which was there to record its artists. They used then-state-of-the-art studio microphones rather than the more durable lower quality ones you'd typically see in a concert setting in those days. Yes, sound recording technology is better today.

    Second, you can appreciate the back story of making the film. Today, people in their 20s and 30s making documentaries probably have no appreciation of how tough it was to pull off this project. Today, high definition video cameras and tape can be had for a tiny fraction of what film cameras, 35MM stock and processing cost in those days. Sound synchronization is a given. Today, for a fraction of the cost of a Moviola you can assemble your A and B rolls and soundtrack on a computer, without having to pay extras for optical effects or sound processing. You no longer have to assemble and keep track of miles of film and mag stripe audio reels, as well as handle the negative with loving care. It's all there on your hard drive and you get unlimited do-overs. Aram Avakian, the editor (also a photographer and filmmaker), was at it night and day for months and months largely by himself. (Woodstock, by contrast, had a large team of editors and assistants.) Avakian, as much as Stern, is responsible for the film (the two share the director's credit). Also, trying to sync up the images from all those different cameras with the soundtrack had to be challenging and I'm guessing it must have required a lot of work and inspired work-arounds to get it looking as good as it did.

    Not to mention just how audacious it was for Stern to put the money up for shooting it himself and how he managed to get a large number of professional cameramen to help out. Since he didn't have enough money to shoot (or even light) everything, Stern used George Avakian, a legendary producer at Columbia Records and Aram's brother, to cue the film crew to turn on the lights and start rolling when he thought a number would be worth shooting.

    After scouting the location, Stern was so unimpressed by the Festival's cruddy venue (the local high school athletic field) he decided not to make the film, only to have his mind changed by the person sitting next to him on his flight back to New York. He originally planned to create a story line around the festival. Luckily, it proved impossible to film the hokey stuff they had written.

    Third, it's an authentic look at mid-century America. When I was growing up in the 60s, I used to look at back issues of Life magazines of the 30s and 40s. At first to "goof on" at the earnestness and corniness of the ads and the stories. But then to appreciate the nuances of living everyday life in the decades before I was born, which you could glean from leafing through those pages. "Anonymous history" is infused in the film. The kid holding several empty soda bottles is probably there at the festival because sneaking into an event like this and picking up empties was an easy way to earn some money. In those days, the deposit you paid on bottles was much larger in real terms than today.

    Shows like "Mad Men" do a decent enough job of picking up some of the atmospherics of this time (usually by showing people smoking cigarettes like madmen), but this is the real thing. The clothes, especially, but also in the gestures and the way people move. And then there's the White/Negro thing in this film. There wasn't the kind of overt racism in Newport, Rhode Island that you would find in the south but there was definitely separateness. Remember, in 1958 Amos 'n Andy was still being shown on TV, and only white people were in TV ads. The two groups are integrated in the movie, but this wasn't typical. Stern was told that he probably couldn't distribute the movie in the south because of this.

    In all, a real gem for anyone who loves jazz. A must-see for anyone who likes, makes or wants to make documentary films.

  3. tfsadmin

    September 16, 2015 at 8:14 am

    Apparently Bert Stern intended to make a feature film set at the 1958 Newport Jazz festival but ran out of money and was only left with the footage of the jazz acts.Hastily cobbled together with the odd snippet of local colour Mr Stern-by accident or design-came up with the definitive music festival documentary and every subsequent pop doc and MTV show is indebted to it. Tight focussing and contre-jour lighting contribute greatly to the atmosphere of intimacy so essential to jazz performances. From the brilliant opening images accompanying Jimmy Giuffre's "The train and the river" to Mahalia Jackson's magnificent 23rd psalm,"Jazz on a summer's day" is a masterpiece and a worthy memorial to the many giants who featured in it. Back in 1960 when it was released in the UK much outrage was expressed at the inclusion of such "non – jazz" performers as Chuck Berry and Big Maybelle,but their contributions demonstrate that "Jazz" is a word capable of embracing more broad parameters than was once believed.Indeed,one look at the broad grin on the face of Papa Jo Jones as he deftly drums behind Mr Berry will leave you in no doubt as to what he feels. Louis Armstrong's 58th birthday is celebrated on stage and his current All – Star line up,whilst not perhaps comparing too well with some of their predecessors,back him enthusiastically,and he gets to sing "Rockin' Chair" again with Big Tea,and has a lot of fun doing it. Anita O'Day's turn,rather like the Duke's in 1956,totally revitalised her career.With an outrageous hat and a skintight dress(and pretty – well stoned as she later cheerfully admitted)she tears up "Tea for Two" leaving both the audience and herself breathless.It is a performance of such daring that it can only have been attained after much rehearsal despite its artful air of spontaneity.I doubt if she ever bettered it. There is a lot of cheerful Dixie from Eli's Chosen Six and a splendid exercise in dynamics from the Chico Hamilton group. Their cellist Fred Katz gets to show off a bit with the Prelude from Bach's cello suite No 1,which he plays through a cloud of smoke and looks very cool indeed. These are just my personal highlights from a wonderful series of cameos from some of the greatest musicians of the era.I only hope I have whetted your appetite,and more than anything in the world I wish that I was 19 years old again and about to walk through the doors of "The Regent",Brighton to see it for the first time.

  4. IMDBReviewer

    September 16, 2015 at 8:14 am

    Partly a jazz concert and partly a time capsule to a long ago era, "Jazz On A Summer's Day" records highlights of the four-day, 1958 festival held in Newport, Rhode Island. The film gets off to a slow start, with interviews of arriving audience, shots of Newport, and cutaways to the America's Cup yacht race, taking place concurrently.

    About nine minutes into the film, the real program begins. The brilliant Thelonious Monk plays "Blue Monk" on the keys. From here on, most of the audio and visuals focus on the festival itself, except for brief visual cuts to the sailing event and impromptu shots of people enjoying themselves in presumably nearby locales. Although the film title says "day", about two-thirds of the film is shot at night.

    Different styles of jazz provide ample variety, and run the gamut from an apparently unrelated boarding house jam session to the rockin', soul-stirring gospel music of Mahalia Jackson, who forcefully belts out three numbers at the end. Louis Armstrong and rarely filmed trombone legend Jack Teagarden perform a casual, seemingly improv vocal of "Old Rocking Chair". Dinah Washington singing "All Of Me", and the unusual percussion sounds of the Chico Hamilton Quintet are also quite good. But my personal favorite was Chuck Berry and band with a slowed down, beat thumpin' rendition of "Sweet Little Sixteen".

    My only serious complaint is the film's editing, which includes the sailing event and quite a few extraneous visuals, and a too-brief overall runtime. A three-hour total jazz event would have been ideal.

    The overall mood of the concert is upbeat, almost carnivalesque. The camera jumps back and forth between on-stage performers and audience reaction. Everyone seems to be having a good time. Glad to see this film recognized by the National Film Registry, to preserve an account of a unique event, held at a crucial moment in American history.

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