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.