Jazz on a Summer's Day Brings Newport Jazz Alive
Louis Armstrong, Anita O'Day, Thelonious Monk, Chuck Berry, Mahalia Jackson, Dinah Washington. Directed by Bert Stern. Aspect ratio: 4:3 (full-screen). Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (remastered). 84 minutes. 1958. New Yorker Video 16500. NR. $29.95.
Bert Stern is best known for his still photography—he's a master of the large-format camera. In 1957, Stern took a movie camera to the Newport Jazz Festival and created this quirky, visually striking film.
It's a bit of an oddity. Look at the roster of acts who appeared at the festival and you'll see a treasure trove of jazz performers at the peak of their powers. Thelonious Monk, the Miles Davis Sextet (with John Coltrane on tenor sax), Sonny Rollins, and the Duke Ellington Orchestra all attended, but of those, only Monk made it to film here, and only for a few minutes at that. Acts that did end up in the film included Louis Armstrong (in a strong performance), Anita O'Day, Dinah Washington, the Jimmy Giuffre Three, and Chuck Berry.
I'd give a lot for the lost performances from this festival, but what remains is striking—and not just for musical reasons. The film itself is simply drop-dead gorgeous. Stern's eye for the telling image never deserts him, whether he's showing us the sunlight dancing on the water during Giuffre's set, or the looks of smug satisfaction on the faces of the young, predominantly white audience during the gospel and blues portions of the show. That's one reason Chuck Berry's performance is so striking—he looks bored with his set even as he excites real passion down among the listeners.
The disc also benefits from great sound. I suspect Stern got access to the PA; it sure doesn't sound as though this was recorded down among the crowd. The sound quality and the striking beauty of the cinematography make this a no-brainer for the serious music lover. Yes, the running time is short, and yes, it could have included so much more great music—but taken for what it is, Jazz on a Summer's Day is a winning document of a long-gone time.