|Louis Armstrong introduced by Willis Conover|
|Miles Davis at Newport|
JAZZ ON A SUMMER’S DAY B+ USA (85 mi) 1959 d: Bert Stern
Bert Stern was an American commercial photographer perhaps best known for his iconic portraits of Marilyn Monroe, or Audrey Hepburn, largely known for portrait and fashion photography, but he got his start, like legendary film director Stanley Kubrick, as a photographer for Look magazine. In fact, it was Stern who took the iconic photograph of Sue Lyon that was used in the advertising campaign for Kubrick’s film LOLITA (1962). But he also made one notable film, shooting bits and pieces of the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival held over the 4th of July weekend in Newport, Rhode Island, which also happened to be the site of the America’s Cup yachting trial races in July. What’s particularly interesting is who was left out of the picture, including some of the best known and most influential stars in the business, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Duke Ellington, Ben Webster and Billy Strayhorn, Sonny Rollins, Lester Young, Ray Charles, Mary Lou Williams, Horace Silver, Marian McPartland, Paul Desmond, Benny Goodman, Big Joe Turner, Willie “The Lion” Smith, and Dave Brubeck, with the filmmaker claiming budget considerations determined which artists were filmed, so many of the best black artists of the era were left out for being too expensive. For instance, $25,000 out of the film’s $115,000 budget went to just paying Louis Armstrong, so the director filmed who he could afford. The result may feature more white artists who aren’t considered top tier or cutting edge, but it’s an influential film nonetheless, even if it only catches glimpses of what happened, proving that a concert can be cinematic, opening the door to other concert films like MONTEREY POP (1968), WOODSTOCK (1970), Gimme Shelter (1970), The Last Waltz (1978), and so many more. Recently restored by the Library of Congress to pristine condition in time for the 2019 New York Film Festival, it was earlier named to the National Film Registry in 1999, one of the earliest examples of a concert film, though it’s hard to improve upon Lester Young in the more intimate recording of the Oscar nominated short JAMMIN’ THE BLUES (1944), Jammin' The Blues (1944) | Lester Young Oscar Nominated Short YouTube (10:20). While the visuals are beautifully restored, intercutting performance footage with shots of the crowd sitting in rows of wooden seats in front of an outdoor stage, many smoking or chatting, including a disgruntled looking women in a red sweater chewing gum, with a red band on her straw hat, who turns out to be American actress and journalist Patricia Bosworth (who died from Covid in 2020), biographer of Montgomery Clift, Marlon Brando, and Diane Arbus. Originally catering to the country club atmosphere of the Eastern elite, many are dressed in their Sunday finest, including several women wearing pearl necklaces, all given an impressionistic look, with cameras continually jumping away from the performances, occasionally gazing off in the distance, witnessing what was taking place nearby or earlier that day, where people are often seen dancing. But the quality of the sound is erratic, using magnetic sound recording, as there are lost moments from sound drift or distortion, especially in the quieter modes, where many of the featured instruments can barely be heard, such as Chico Hamilton’s drums in his featured appearance, or even the tinny sound of the piano used by Thelonious Monk, which tends to get drowned out, with the camera moving away from him and concentrating instead on the yacht race out into the wide expanse of the ocean, including, briefly, the televised narration cutting over the music, which is a fairly incomprehensible transition, and not really what Monk had in mind when composing Blue Monk, Thelonious Monk : Blue Monk YouTube (4:37), yet the yacht theme continues with Sonny Stitt playing sax on Loose Walk with Sal Salvador on guitar, Newport 1958 YouTube (6:15), altogether missing the beginning, including most of Stitt’s blistering solo, seemingly filmed haphazardly, followed by a rather impromptu version of Dixieland played along the shoreline.
Among the earliest examples of a concert festival spilling over into several days, using multiple cameras shooting simultaneously, what’s perhaps sad to recall is how many of these musicians are no longer with us, where the film represents a time capsule that for many of them represents their only appearance on film. For the infamous Miles Davis Sextet including John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, and Bill Evans, months later they would record Kind of Blue, the biggest selling jazz record in history, yet it’s a shame they never appeared on film, and Stern unfortunately passed on that opportunity. According to the director, “Usually jazz films are all black and white, kind of depressing and in little downstairs nightclubs. This brought jazz out into the sun. It was different.” While erratic at times, relying upon Columbia executives George Avakian as Music Director, selecting the artists and acquiring musical rights, while his brother Aram Avakian was a film editor and camera coordinator, also editing Arthur Penn’s divinely avant-garde Mickey One (1965), as the director knew next to nothing about jazz, not really caring that much for the music, the film is nonetheless captivating from start to finish, yet the narration-free concert footage seems more interested in the spirit of jazz and the culture surrounding it than the actual music itself, shot on 16mm color film stock, opening with undulating blue water shots of undisturbed boats and docks in the Newport Harbor, growing abstract, where the colorful coastal vision could just as easily be the Côte d’Azur on the French Riviera, or some other Mediteranean delight, followed by an odd syncopation number, featuring a drummerless Jimmy Giuffrè on sax and Bob Brookmeyer on trombone, while Jimmy Hall on guitar remains unseen, where the alternating rhythms generate a playful spirit in the round welcoming one and all to the proceedings, The train and the river YouTube (4:45). Anita O’Day wowed audiences (and critics, many hailing her performance as the highlight of the film) with her own unique arrangement of two familiar songs, dressed in a black cocktail dress with white gloves and an oversized feathery hat, and appears to be having a blast doing scat and just tearing up the tempos, Anita O'Day - Sweet Georgia Brown & Tea for Two YouTube (8:18). She describes her experiences in her 1981 autobiography, High Times, Hard Times, where people might be shocked to learn she was a heroin addict, having served several months in prison for possession charges, and was reportedly high during her performance, completely unaware she was being filmed until much later.
Unbeknownst to me, Bert Stern, a famous advertising and fashion photographer, was there with a camera crew...It had rained, and if you watch closely you can see me scrape the mud off my shoe as I start up the first step toward the stand...to me this was just a swinging gig, not a turning point in my career. Performing in the afternoon was a bonus, because I could see the audience. All I knew was that I began working to a rather apathetic audience, but they responded quickly and by the end of the set, I really had them…
Almost overlooked is the blind British pianist and leader of the George Shearing Quintet going Latin in George in Brazil - YouTube (1:32), where again they only show a brief fragment, followed by a joyfully upbeat performance by Dinah Washington singing All of Me, All of Me - Dinah Washington (Jazz on a Summer's Day 1959) YouTube (4:19), offering a completely different side of her where she lets loose and swings a little bit, even making up her own lyrics, in stark contrast to her heavily produced, overly mannered studio recordings. Generating plenty of dancing in the audience, including a shot of two guys dancing (rare for 1958), Dinah picks up a pair of mallets and cheerfully joins in a duet on the vibraphone with Terry Gibbs. Baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan was then a skinny red-haired kid, seen earlier in dark glasses as a fan in the front row mesmerized by Monk, now playing with his quartet, performing with a majestic Art Farmer on the trumpet in the up-tempo number Catch As Catch Can, both displaying amazing control with that speed, Gerry Mulligan, At Newport Jazz Festival 1958. YouTube (3:55). The drummer and bass player are only seen in brief glimpses, but otherwise completely overlooked. The camera has a tendency to focus only on one or two musicians, with the others remaining offscreen, featuring selective close-ups, often missing whoever happens to be soloing at the time, yet this offers viewers a dazzling intimacy onstage, where you feel as if you can reach out and touch the performers. In something of a change of pace, we hear a little rhythm and blues thrown in with Big Maybelle rockin’ the joint, Big Maybelle I Ain't Mad at You Live YouTube (3:45), an oversized woman with roots to Bessie Smith, dressed all in white with a matching tiara, as if she’s going to the prom, yet she literally commands the stage with a thunderous voice. But perhaps the biggest surprise was Chuck Berry singing Sweet Little Sixteen, Sweet Little Sixteen - Chuck Berry (Jazz on a Summer's Day 1959) YouTube (4:04). With all the talk about Bob Dylan electrifying the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, booed relentlessly as if that was an eternal sin of some kind, the Jazz Fest freely integrates some of the pioneers of rock ‘n’ roll, with Chuck Berry mixing it up with some jazz greats who may have had their doubts, beginning modestly but building this electric chemistry with the audience, eventually duck-walking across the stage to a clarinet solo from a relatively unknown clarinetist Rudy Rutherford, usually a tenor saxophonist who played with Count Basie, borrowing part of Basie’s rhythm section to form an impromptu all-star band. Rolling Stones guitar legend Keith Richards remembers seeing the film as a kid, “When I saw Chuck in Jazz on a Summer’s Day as a teenager, what struck me was how he was playing against the grain with a bunch of jazz guys. They were brilliant — guys like Jo Jones on drums and Jack Teagarden on trombone — but they had that jazz attitude cats put on sometimes: ‘Ooh… this rock & roll…’”
American socialite Elaine Lorillard established the festival in 1954, and she and husband Louis Lorillard financed it for many years, hiring George Wein to organize the first festival and bring outdoor jazz to Rhode Island. Most of the early festivals were broadcast on Voice of America radio, while many performances were recorded and released as albums. While this is a documentary, more importantly it’s a jazz documentary, featuring a photographic eye for composition, with the director’s own unique style mirroring the jazz riffs, improvising within his own art form, where this film has a freewheeling expression, bathing musicians in a red aura, embracing vintage cars of Newport, people riding around town, parties on yachts, beer-fueled house parties spilling out onto roofs, finding couples kissing, and even fat guys in Bermuda shorts. They all depict summer at its most colorful, where a partying youth culture was beginning to butt up against the bourgeois high society of this historic Newport Casino resort, bringing together people from all walks of life, displaying a unique vibrancy, which the music absolutely highlights, along with unforgettable images of the performers. What’s also clear is that jazz as an art form was at its peak just as rock ‘n’ roll was about to replace it as the nation’s most popular music, so it accentuates a changing of the guard, where the end of the 50’s opens the door to the 60’s. Among the most evocative sequences features Chico Hamilton’s cellist Nathan Gershman, recently recruited from the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra, sitting alone shirtless in a room practicing the Prelude to Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1, cello (Jazz on a Summer's Day 1959) YouTube (2:14), nearly enveloped by the cloud of smoke from his cigarette, while juxtaposed images find young children at play. The Chico Hamilton Quintet plays Blue Sands, Chico Hamilton Quintet - Blue Sands (Newport, 1958) YouTube (6:07), where Eric Dolphy’s flute solo is brutally edited, yet Hamilton’s steady rhythm of mallets and tom-toms has him sweating under the spotlights, continually repeating a single rhythmic pattern, decreasing to near silence, with the audience applauding, thinking the piece is over, but he slowly builds it up again, growing in volume and speed, like an accelerating locomotive, leaving a delirious crowd entranced by what they witnessed. This is the build-up for the final two acts that comprise nearly one-third of the film, so clearly the emphasis is on Louis Armstrong, with the great Mahalia Jackson bringing Sunday services to a close, pushed past midnight into Sunday to distinguish her from the secular music. Armstrong is introduced by Willis Conover, a jazz producer and broadcaster on Voice of America who serves as the emcee throughout, playing in quick succession Lazy River, Tiger Rag, and Rockin’ Chair, engaging in some clever repartée with trombonist Jack Teagarden, with a little conversation about Aunt Harriet thrown in, given a vaudevillian twist, but played with genuine affection where both seem to be enjoying themselves immensely before bringing the house down with When the Saints Go Marching In, Louis Armstrong & His All Stars Live @ The Newport Jazz Festival 1958 YouTube (13:18). This is definitive Louis Armstrong with material he had been performing for at least thirty years, continuously mopping his brow with his ever-handy white handkerchief, smiling infectiously while doing that scat thing. But if anyone can follow that, it would be revered gospel icon Mahalia Jackson, widely considered the best and most influential gospel singer in history, the first gospel singer to perform at Carnegie Hall (1952) and at the Newport Jazz Festival (1958). She also performed at President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961, at the March on Washington in 1963, and at the funeral of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Her voice is a force of nature, rich and powerful, influenced by the secular sounds of blues artists like Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey, accompanied by Mildred Falls on the piano and organ, where her sanctified style of performance allowed freer movement and expression when contrasted against the styles of more conservative congregations. While in church, it’s acceptable to rock or sway to gospel music, but is often considered in bad taste to dance, but this is a Jazz Festival, which writes its own rules, so it’s something of a phenomena to see people dancing to her music, telling the audience afterwards, “You make me feel like I’m a star.” But let no one forget her devout faith in God, summoning powers only she possesses, bringing the festival to a close with a deeply somber and soul-stirring rendition of The Lord’s Prayer, Mahalia Jackson - Everybody Talking' 'Bout Heaven, Didn't It ... YouTube (11:23).