Jazz on a Summer’s Day

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I listened this week to a special edition of Dinner Jazz on Jazz FM which had Guy Barker as the guest presenter.  He recalled how, aged 19 and on his first visit to New York and walking through Greenwich Village, he saw a small arts theatre screening Bert Stern’s brilliant documentary about the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, Jazz on a Summer’s Day.  This was by way of introducing Jimmy Guiffre and Bob Brookmeyer playing ‘The Train and the River’, the first sound that he heard  as the film began.

For myself, I only had to hear the opening  notes to be able to replay in my mind’s eye the opening images from this remarkable blend of artful camera work and superb jazz.  The film’s first images as Guiffre’s sax and Brookmeyer’s trumpet noodle coolly together are of yachts and deliquescing reflections in the in the harbour water.

Jazz on a Summer’s Day was the only film directed by Bert Stern, who is best known for his fashion and magazine photography, including the famous ‘last sitting’ of Marilyn Monroe six weeks before her death in 1962. As a photographer, Stern approached his subject  as an opportunity to prove that a concert film could be more than merely a record of the music: the filmmaking itself could be as artful as the onstage sound. He succeeded: released in 1960, Jazz on a Summer’s Day is now recognized as a cinematic landmark, setting the standard for the entire concert film genre.

The film itself almost takes the form of a jazz improvisation, the camera sometimes wandering away from the stage to focus other features of the Newport environment, often returning to those yachts, as they compete in the America’s Cup races. The camera work is intimate and full of life, getting right up close to the performers on stage and roving around the festival grounds to meet youthful festival-goers. Stern employed five cameras simultaneously, some handheld and with telephoto lenses, and used state of the art Kodak colour film.

The Newport Jazz Festival grew in the 1950s as a regular jazz event held in the exclusive Rhode Island summer resort frequented by the eastern elite. By 1958, the Festival, then in its fifth year, was attracting  some 10,000 visitors – not all of them drawn from elite circles!  Interestingly in this pre-civil rights era, Jazz on a Summer’s Day shows blacks and whites mixing, both on the stage and in the audience, and Stern was advised that the film could not be shown in the American south because of this shocking aspect.

As well as ensuring the best standard of cinematography, Stern also recorded in  high-fidelity audio, with his editor, Aram Avakian, meticulously matching Stern’s images to the separately recorded sound.  But, as some critics have pointed out, this did result in one of the film’s major flaws.  Stern had persuaded George Avakian, Aram’s brother and a Columbia Records executive, to utilise all of Columbia’s technical resources to record the performances. In return, it was left to George Avakian to decide which numbers would be filmed. Stern himself was no jazz fan, and his trust in Avakian’s judgement led to some glaring omissions – amongst which were Lester Young’s final Newport appearance and Ben Webster and Billy Strayhorn performing ‘Chelsea Bridge’ as a tribute to Duke Ellington.  Worst of all, though, was the failure to film the Miles Davis Sextet – the band that featured Cannonball Adderley, John Coltrane and Bill Evans which would record Kind of Blue eight months later – and of which no film footage now exists.

Despite these oversights, Jazz on a Summer’s Day remains a magnificent film that captures some great performances and evokes the feel of a summer’s day in the 1950s, lounging by the ocean listening to cool sounds.  And all of it can be seen here on YouTube:

 See also

  • Jazz.com: individual reviews of the 12 principal performances in Jazz on a Summer’s day

Wolfie

Last night to RNCM Manchester to see the Guy Barker Jazz Orchestra perform The Amadeus Project. I was a bit trepidatious – kind of expected jazzy improvisations on Mozart themes.  However, the evening was an unqualified joy: the music was all straight-ahead jazz originals by Barker. The first half of the concert was part of a suite based on characters from Mozart operas. The second half was a re-writing of  The Magic Flute in the hard-boiled style of a Mickey Spillane thriller, with narration written by Barker’s friend, the thriller writer Robert Ryan (who appeared onstage to introduce the piece).  After I bought the CD, autographed by Barker.

As well as being an excellent trumpeter, Guy Barker has developed into a fine composer. Here he performed both as soloist and conductor of the band assembled to tour The Amadeus Project, which – as he explained in opening remarks – was the result of commissions in 2006 by San Diego’s Mainly Mozart Festival and BBC Radio 3 (strange coincidence!).

The band were: Guy Barker, Nathan Bray, Tom Rees Roberts, Byron Wallen (trumpet), Baraby Dickinson, Alistair White (trombone), Mark Frost (bass trombone), Rosario Giuliani (alto & soprano sax), Graeme Blevins (tenor sax, clarinet), Per ‘Texas’ Johansson (tenor sax, flute, contrabass clarinet, clarinet), Phil Todd (baritone sax, tuba, flute, piccolo), Jim Watson (piano, organ), Phil Donkin (double bass) and Ralph Salmins (drums).

The first half of the concert was The Amadeus Suite, pieces inspired by characters from Mozart’s operas. The band kicked off with the rousing  ‘Wolfie’, the opening number from the ‘Amadeus Suite’, which showcased their musical strengths: precise ensemble work, with compelling and contrasting solos.

The second half was dZf, described by Guy as a retelling of The Magic Flute in a ‘Jazz Noir’ style, featuring the actor Michael Brandon as narrator. There were fine solos from all the band, particularly alto saxophonist Rosario Giuliani, and the compositions had a cinematic echo. In this piece  Barker’s role as conductor was accentuated – ensuring both musicians and narrator Brandon came in on cue and soloist.

dZf was originally commissioned for Radio 3’s Jazz Line-Up, its inspiration a Johnny Staccato-type update, written by Robert Ryan, of the plot of Mozart’s last opera, The Magic Flute (extraordinary storyline!).

Dave Gelly wrote in the Observer:

Not content with being probably the greatest trumpet virtuoso that British jazz has ever produced, Guy Barker has grown into a quite phenomenal composer. The first disc of this two-CD set, entitled ‘dZf’, consists of a re-telling of The Magic Flute as a film noir tale, with Michael Brandon narrating Robert Ryan’s sparse, laconic script. Barker’s atmospheric score simply bursts with melodic and orchestral invention, his own sizzling trumpet setting the pace. The second disc (‘The Amadeus Suite’) contains a set of equally impressive pieces inspired by characters from Mozart operas.

BBC review:

This is British jazz with all its virtues and a few of its faults. It’s big, brassy and confident. If you like flutes and Hammond organs you’ve got ’em. If you like clarinets and trombones you’ll find them too. While it’s slightly rough round the edges in a couple of places, you can’t fault its ambition, creativity or sheer rumbustiousness.

Barker’s own playing throughout is unflagging, technically impeccable and shows a mastery of all styles and tones. All in all, it’s impressive.

John Fordham in The Guardian wrote:

Guy Barker is a world-class postbop trumpeter, but his composing skills have only recently blossomed. This Mozart-inspired double-CD features a work called dZf, which he calls a “jazz-noir” rumination on The Magic Flute, and a suite inspired by characters from across the operas. But it’s cinematically evocative contemporary jazz, not jazz/classical crossover music, with dZf framing a thriller story by Robert Ryan, narrated in downbeat gumshoe tones by Michael Brandon. Fire-breathing Italian postbop saxophonist Rosario Giuliani is also a key component, alongside Barker in front of a cracking UK big band. Sometimes the music recalls the pumping contrapuntal jostling of a Colin Towns orchestra, sometimes a Ray Charles R&B band, sometimes the slinky mean-streets insinuations of the 1940s soundtracks Barker loves – and there are also episodes of shimmering delicacy. The Amadeus Suite has the edge, for its broader idiomatic references and because the spoken storyline of dZf is somewhat cheesy. But Barker’s trumpet blazes over all the music, and the writing is consistently terrific.

Links

Guy Barker and Roger Kellaway at Pizza Express

While in London we went to Pizza Express to see Guy Barker with Roger Kellaway (piano) and Phil Donkin (bass). This was just a month after Kellaway had served as band leader and pianist during the Astral Weeks Live at the Hollywood Bowl concerts by Van Morrison celebrating the forty year anniversity of the classic album that was released in November 1968.

It was a great evening of jazz – and we were seated about a foot from Kellaway’s right hand.

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