Jazz on a Summer’s Day

In 1958, jaz­z’s place in Amer­i­can cul­ture was chang­ing. It was climb­ing out of the smokey night­clubs and into the sun­ny embrace of the bour­geoisie. A younger force, rock and roll, was start­ing to push it aside. That sense of tran­si­tion is pre­served in Jazz on a Sum­mer’s Day, pho­tog­ra­ph­er Bert Stern’s film of the 1958 New­port Jazz Fes­ti­val.

Kei­th Richards has called Stern’s movie “a para­ble on film of the changeover of pow­er between jazz and rock and roll.” In his auto­bi­og­ra­phy, Life, Richards describes his youth­ful pil­grim­age with Mick Jag­ger to see Chuck Berry’s per­for­mance in Jazz on a Sum­mer’s Day:

The film had Jim­my Giuf­fre, Louis Arm­strong, Thelo­nious Monk, but Mick and I went to see the man. That black coat. He was brought on stage–a very bold move by someone–with Jo Jones on drums, a jazz great. Jo Jones was, among oth­ers, Count Basie’s drum­mer. I think it was Chuck­’s proud­est moment, when he got up there. It’s not a par­tic­u­lar­ly good ver­sion of “Sweet Lit­tle Six­teen,” but it was the atti­tude of the cats behind him, sol­id against the way he looked and the way he was mov­ing. They were laugh­ing at him. They were try­ing to fuck him up. Jo Jones was rais­ing his drum­stick after every few beats and grin­ning as if he were in play school. Chuck knew he was work­ing against the odds. And he was­n’t real­ly doing very well, when you lis­ten to it, but he car­ried it. He had a band behind him that want­ed to toss him, but he still car­ried the day. Jo Jones blew it, right there. Instead of a knife in the back, he could have giv­en him the shit. But Chuck forced his way through.

Lat­er gen­er­a­tions of jazz lovers have been per­plexed by the film, not because of Chuck Berry, but because of the film­mak­er’s focus on every­thing but the jazz. At one point Thelo­nious Monk is soul­ful­ly play­ing “Blue Monk” when the film sud­den­ly cuts to the Amer­i­ca’s Cup sail­boat race and the jar­ring voice of a radio announc­er describ­ing the scene. Ouch.

Just as painful, in ret­ro­spect, are the omis­sions. The film­mak­er took a pass on per­for­mances at the fes­ti­val that year by Duke Elling­ton, Dave Brubeck, Lester Young, Son­ny Rollins and the Miles Davis Sex­tet. “Yes,” writes Alan Kurtz at Jazz.com about the Davis sex­tet, “the last unit fea­tur­ing Can­non­ball Adder­ley, John Coltrane and Bill Evans was the same super­group as would eight months lat­er record Kind of Blue and of which no motion pic­ture or video footage now exists.” Ouch again.

But Jazz on a Sum­mer’s Day is still a won­der­ful film. Stern was one of the great­est adver­tis­ing and fash­ion pho­tog­ra­phers of his gen­er­a­tion. He was a 28-year-old still pho­tog­ra­ph­er when he went to New­port and basi­cal­ly invent­ed the music per­for­mance film genre. While Stern’s com­mer­cial work tends to be care­ful­ly con­trolled, Jazz on a Sum­mer’s Day exhibits the pho­tog­ra­pher’s con­sid­er­able gift for observ­ing peo­ple in their nat­ur­al set­ting. There are many doc­u­ments of the way peo­ple looked in the late 1950s, but few are this vivid. Or this visu­al­ly elo­quent.

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Comments (5)
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  • sam says:

    Great review. spot on. nailed it.

  • Vid Hardt says:

    To my eyes and ears there is absolute­ly noth­ing painful, no “ouch” to this mas­ter­piece.

    Did the film­mak­ers “take a pass” on Elling­ton, Brubeck, and oth­ers? Doubt­ful: they shot before secur­ing any rights, then sought them after­wards; some no doubt said no.

    Is it “jar­ring” to have voiceover dur­ing “Blue Monk”? Not to me. The great leg­end takes a 64-bar solo, and there’s a cut­away dur­ing some of it, dur­ing which the solo can still be heard, though low­er in the mix. It’s crit­i­cal to the pac­ing of the film we not linger on any solo that long, how­ev­er intrigu­ing to those watch­ing just for the music.

    Because as bet­ter crit­ics than I have writ­ten, this film is its own work of art, a glimpse of inter­sti­tial, inter­sec­tion­al Amer­i­ca 59 years ago as I type this.

    And Bert Stern got it so very right. The man who cap­tured Mar­i­lyn Mon­roe more clear­ly than any oth­er pho­tog­ra­ph­er nailed it here: from the pret­ty girls who tend to be a bit annoyed or bored; the lit­tle kids chant­i­ng taunt­ing songs, walk­ing in Mom­my’s shoes, or col­lect­ing deposit bot­tles; the all-white 20-some­things danc­ing out the win­dows of a house-cum-bar drink­ing Rhein­golds with dan­gling cig­a­rettes as they assertive­ly preen their hip­ness; to the New­port reg­u­lars on the street still firm­ly, clue­less­ly root­ed in 1920s style; jazzmen casu­al­ly bick­er­ing, rehears­ing, or admir­ing each oth­er’s work; sub­tle sta­tus cues like a radio per­son­al­i­ty men­tion­ing her “warm leather coat”; and the gov­er­nor’s patri­ar­chal admo­ni­tions to mind the traf­fic, every detail opens fur­ther worlds of ver­simil­i­tude to imag­ine one­self actu­al­ly there. Not a moment of it clunks or jars by echo­ing mere prej­u­dices of the day. Again, Stern got it right, mag­nif­i­cent­ly.

    Every frame is wor­thy of a muse­um paint­ing, every note wor­thy of being immor­tal­ized. It is, to my view, one of the great­est films ever made.

    The ver­sion I’m fam­li­iar with is the 81-minute one on iTunes. The orig­i­nal 78-minute release is free on YouTube at this time. The DVD has an 84-minute cut with “Bonus Scene Selec­tions” that I’ll buy as soon as I find a copy under cur­rent $70 prices.

  • Vid Hardt says:

    A few cor­rec­tions a day lat­er:

    Monk’s solo is 48 bars, not 64, with the sail­ing announc­er over bars 3–14.

    The radio per­son­al­i­ty refers to her “heavy leather coat.”

    The 81-minute iTunes ver­sion is the 78-minute cut, I see after watch­ing the YouTube ver­sion side-by-side with it. I’m guess­ing iTunes used a 25fps Euro­pean ver­sion, but played at the US stan­dard it adds 3 min­utes. Still aching to see the longer cut!

  • Delphi says:

    Thank you for a fan­tas­ti­cal­ly descrip­tive review! I love this film and have seen it many times.

    I cant find out who the dude is play­ing one tim­pani drum?? Its a real build that keeps rolling.. I think hes on the main stage. ?

  • Delphi says:

    Thank you for a fan­tas­ti­cal­ly descrip­tive review! I love this film and have seen it many times.

    I cant find out who the dude is play­ing one tim­pani drum?? Its a real build that keeps rolling.. I think hes on the main stage. ?

    Can you help?

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