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