The Newport Jazz Festival starts today, and since I can’t be there, I thought I’d rewatch the timeless documentary “Jazz on a Summer’s Day” shot during the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival and directed by Bert Stern.
What I love about this documentary is how romantically it captures the town and people of Newport and the wonderful footage of the crowds attending the festival. Stern, a 28-year-old professional photographer shooting his first feature film, used the latest 35-mm Kodak color film – a departure from the frequent black-and-white films featuring jazz artists. Of course, there are some remarkable performances featuring several dynamic artists, but the footage of the artists seems more scattered to me and often isn’t as interesting as the coverage of the audience.
The film begins with shots of Newport, well-known for hosting the America’s Cup boat race for many years. The 1958 race was taking place at the same time as the jazz festival, so there are some great shots of the massive boats in action on the vast waters of the Atlantic. There’s a ubiquitous ragtime jazz band playing loud and proud as they are being driven around town in a convertible throughout the movie, an enjoyable break between the daytime performances.
The highlights of the first day’s performances for me were Thelonious Monk and Anita O’Day. Monk was fairly understated but clearly having a good time with his signature “off-key”-sounding melodies on the piano. And I suspect they weren’t ready for O’Day when she came out in an outfit I remain obsessed with to this day because of how classic it looks. It was a simple black dress, a stunning black hat with white feathers around the brim and white gloves. She slowly eased into “Sweet Georgia Brown” and by the end of the song she showed the crowd she really knew how to swing. (And won me over completely – I promptly downloaded two of her albums after I saw this movie.)
The fashions stood out in the audience as well, particularly accessories that were clearly a sign of the times like hats. There were hats of all kinds at the outdoor venue, and cat’s eye sunglasses must have been all the rage because it seemed like every other woman was wearing a pair.
I was also impressed by a more significant aspect of the audience – the integration. At a time in our nation’s history when I would assume the crowd would be segregated, blacks and whites sat alongside each other at this event appearing as if they are not even aware of any civil rights battles being waged. Stern explained in his separate commentary for the film that his distributors knew the film would have trouble being placed in theaters in the South for that very reason. But it was refreshing to see that at least in that spot in the country at that moment, everyone was welcome and respected and having a good time with each other, not just in their own camps.
There is some terrific footage of the townspeople in their local haunts and houses – making messes with beer deliveries, dancing on rooftops and cavorting in windows. It looks like these well-to-do people really know how to party even in daylight. As the day transitions into evening, the ragtime band winds down its antics around town, and with the sun setting, Stern gets a lovely shot of them actually standing still and performing on some rocks at the edge of the beach.
The next phase of the documentary covers the evening performances Stern and his crew filmed. The performances included Dinah Washington, Big Maybelle, Chuck Berry, Chico Hamilton, Louis Armstrong and a finale of Mahalia Jackson. I was annoyed by the camera work during Dinah Washington’s performance of “All of Me” because you don’t see much of her, at least not at the beginning of her set. Stern shows more of the audience – probably because they are dancing nonstop, which is a good thing – but I wish there had been more balance between the stage and the crowd. The crowd kept dancing all through Maybelle and Chuck Berry, then Chico Hamilton came in and cooled it down with a mellow but moving set.
What can you say about Louis Armstrong beyond the obvious – he’s a magnificent entertainer. He did several songs and engaged in quite a bit of banter with the host on stage that enchanted the audience. But the topper turned out to be Mahalia Jackson, which is why Stern let her be the last performer in the documentary.
Columbia Records executive George Avakian was in charge of the sound recordings, and he tried to convince Avakian not to include Jackson in the final cut because she was a gospel singer. Fortunately, Stern knew better. It was clearly important to him to show the impact her voice had on the crowd, and in this case I didn’t mind him spending a lot of time focusing on them instead of the artist (plus there was more balance this time). The power of her hymns, including “The Lord’s Prayer,” was reflected on every face Stern photographed. I also loved seeing her reaction to this group of people she assumed would not fully relate to her type of music. She was near tears when she said after the audience’s first ovation, “You make me feel like a star.”
When I first saw this documentary, I assumed that Stern had filmed the most significant acts at the festival, but after listening to the commentary this time around, I was dismayed to learn that he missed out on filming some of the best performers there.
Apparently, he left those choices up to Avakian, and Avakian wasn’t keen on trying to make arrangements with other record companies. I also read on Jazz.com that since Stern was not a jazz aficionado, he didn’t know who he should fight to try to film and who he shouldn’t, so he deferred to Avakian. Whatever the complications, it is very nearly tragic that there is no footage of the orchestras and bands of Duke Ellington, Lester Young, Dave Brubeck, Sonny Rollins, Horace Silver, Marian McPartland, and the act that would’ve meant the most to me to see perform, the Miles Davis Sextet, which included John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley and Bill Evans. I could cry.
But at least we have the wonderful performances Stern did manage to immortalize on film as well as the engaging moments in the town of Newport. Whether you are attending this year’s Newport Jazz Festival or not, whether you love jazz or not, I highly recommend this slice-of-life in 1958 among the culturally savvy set enjoying good times with good music.