Bert Stern

Documentary Spotlight: Jazz on a Summer’s Day (1959)

This summer, bereft of the outdoor music concerts so beloved at this time of year, is the perfect time to catch up with the classic festival films. So what better time to begin at the beginning and discover (or rediscover) the one that started it all. Famed New York commercial/fashion photographer Bert Stern came to Newport in 1958, with a somewhat different project in mind. According to film critic in his Boston Sunday Globe documentary page, “Stern initially planned to have the festival serve as a backdrop for a fictional narrative.” Apparently, he found the 1958 edition of the Newport Jazz Fest was far more interesting as a primary subject. How could it not with a line-up that included Louis Armstrong Mahalia Jackson, Thelonious Monk, Gerry Mulligan, Dinah Washington, Chuck Berry and other greats?


Louis Armstrong in full flight.

With its scene-establishing prologue, exciting close-up views of the performers and scanning shots of distinctive audience members, Stern’s film would be a table-setter for several notable rock festival documentaries to come: Woodstock, Monterrey Pop and Gimme Shelter being the most famous. It not only captures the giants of their genre in a live setting but also serve as sociological snapshots of their era. In the era that preceded those big rock music events, it was the annual Newport Jazz Festival that was the place to be for city hipsters and savvy suburbanites alike. While Jazz on a Summer’s Day doesn’t have the momentous vibe of those three rock films, Bert Stern’s work is a star-studded look back to a time when postwar jazz was at the height of its popularity and a partying youth culture was starting to butt up against the genteel high society of this Rhode Island resort.


Shades of summer: Fans at Newport ’58

Stern quickly establishes the breezy carnival atmosphere of the 1958 edition of the festival as a moderately rebellious beatnik crowd blends into the gauzy, Eisenhower-era comfort zone with relative ease. There’s some wild carousing at an oceanfront rental and a recurring theme where a roving Dixieland combo promotes the festival by showing up all over town, blaring from the back of an antique car or serenading on a moonlit beach. (This may be leftover footage from the aborted feature-film idea). The actual concert footage starts with Anita O’Day entertaining an afternoon crowd of more-formally dressed folks with some wild scat singing during her elaborate deconstructions of “Sweet Georgia Brown” and “Tea for Two.” Be-bop, the preeminent branch of the jazz tree back then, is represented with fine segments featuring Sonny Stitt and Thelonious Monk. Unfortunately, the intercutting of yachting footage (that season’s America’s Cup trial runs were also taking place) proves to be a considerable distraction during Monk’s number.

Saxophonist Gerry Mulligan is on stage as the nighttime segment starts and things begin to loosen up with a younger and more integrated crowd taking over. A few of them even look like they’re on drugs (the very idea!). Bluesy belters Dinah Washington and Big Maybelle wow an audience that’s all about dancing and singing along, and the good vibes peak with a sublime medley from the immortal Louis Armstrong. He starts with a tender “Lazy River” and finishes with a rollicking “When the Saints Go Marching In,” and along the way there’s at least one of Pop’s stratospheric trumpet solos. The only miscue in the performance clips is Chuck Berry doing a rather lackluster version of “Sweet Little Sixteen.” It hints at a tendency the Newport promoters would later develop when tastes changed and non-jazz performers became less of an exception.

But all is set right as Saturday night passes into Sunday morning, when Mahalia Jackson closes the film with a rousing gospel set. The ritual of a cross-section of people enjoying music al-fresco on a summer’s weekend would become a lot more common in the decades to come, but here it still seems new, which makes Stern’s idea of filming the fans as intimately as he does the performers feel prophetic. It’s something we’re all missing now and for maybe some time to come. The audience here at Newport—-the ones in cat’s-eyes glasses and plaid pants mixing with those in berets and turtlenecks—-didn’t “change the world” like those at the ballyhooed rock mega-festivals a decade later. But they and the musicians fed off each other in a communal rapture of the type that may feel new all over again once we ever get back to it.

For more info on the virtual re-release of the digitally restored Jazz on a Summer’s Day go to kinomarquee.com

You can check out the excerpt of my book “Rock Docs: A fifty-Year Cinematic Jorney” at http://booklocker.com/books/8905.html or by clicking on the book cover image above. If interested in purchasing, you can also contact me directly for a special offer and free shipping! Thanks, Rick.
rick.ouellette@verizon.net

“Documentary 101” sampler, Part Five

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Now on sale as both a paperback and e-book: http://booklocker.com/books/6965.html Also available from Amazon and other online book sellers.

“Documentary 101: A Viewer’s Guide to Non-Fiction Film” is a first-of-its-kind anthology, covering the entire spectrum of non-fiction film from 1895 to the present day. There are 101 full-length reviews of documentaries chosen for their aesthetic prominence and/or historical significance, followed by briefer entries on related titles. There are 325 total reviews and an informational appendix in its 418 pages.

jazz

Several notable rock festival documentaries—”Woodstock”, “Monterrey Pop” and “Gimme Shelter” being the most famous—not only capture the giants of their genre in a live setting but also serve as sociological snapshots of their era. But in the half-generation that preceded those events, it was the annual Newport Jazz Festival that was the place to be for city hipsters and savvy suburbanites alike… Director Bert Stern quickly establishes the breezy carnival atmosphere of the 1958 edition of the festival as a moderately rebellious beatnik crowd blends into the gauzy, Eisenhower-era comfort zone with relative ease. The concert footage starts with Anita O’Day entertaining an afternoon crowd of more-formally dressed folks with some wild scat singing during her elaborate deconstructions of “Sweet Georgia Brown” and “Tea for Two.”
(Jazz on a Summer’s Day, 1959)

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best boy

It would be difficult to imagine a documentary style more personal than the one behind the Oscar-winning “Best Boy”. Director Ira Wohl followed his fifty-two-year-old developmentally disabled cousin Philly for three years, during which he gained a measure of self-reliance and entered the outside world for virtually the first time. It was Wohl himself, convincing Philly’s loving but elderly parents that their son should prepare for the time when they were not around anymore, who prompted this move to greater independence. Pearl and Max, are the very image of stoic, uncomplaining people of modest means who got along playing the hand that was dealt them. “If God wants to punish someone, he should only punish them with retarded children,” Pearl says, but even this comment seems free of bitterness.
(Best Boy, 1979)

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one day sept

When Munich was chosen as the site of the 1972 Summer Olympics, World War II was not that far in the past, and neither were the sour memories of the 1936 “Hitler” Olympics in Berlin. So the event organizers were determined to show the world the modern liberal-democratic face of West Germany. But instead of the “Olympics of Serenity,” they got a globally televised nightmare when Palestinian terrorists invaded the athletes’ village, kidnapping and eventually killing eleven Israeli sportsmen. In his riveting film about the tragedy, director Kevin MacDonald views it as a watershed moment in mass media and as a momentous debacle of West German incompetence. For many Americans, when all those cameras turned away from the competition to focus on the sudden hostage story, it would be their first close-up view of international terrorism.
(One Day in September, 1999)

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herzog

Werner Herzog’s “Fitzcaraldo” was the based-on-real-life story of an eccentric impresario whose goal in life is to build a grand opera house in the deep Amazon backcountry and have Enrico Caruso sing there. In the script, Fitzcaraldo is faced with navigational difficulties in the pursuit of that goal and decides to have his hired hands haul his three-hundred-ton steamship up and over a mountain ridge to a parallel river. Herzog hired local men as extras to do just that, spurning the idea of doing a process shot, bringing the art of cinematic realism to a new extreme. The easygoing Les Blank was just the man to coolly record the monomaniacal impulses of both Fitzcaraldo and Herzog (“I live my life and I end my life with this project,” the director tells us at one point) and deftly examines the dizzying heights and desperate depths that such an attitude will lead to. “I don’t want to live in a world where there are no lions anymore,” Herzog says at one point. Yet with the coming age of demographic targets, played-down-to audiences, test endings, and the like, it is little wonder that those of Herzog’s ilk found it ever more difficult to foist something like the beautifully crazed fever dream of Fitzcaraldo onto to the public. But as Herzog puts it, “all these dreams are yours as well.”
(Burden of Dreams, 1982. Werner Herzog is pictured on the set of “Fitzcaraldo” in a photo taken by Blank’s trusty editor and sound recordist, Maureen Gosling)

sky above

Almost two hundred years after Captain Cook discovered New Guinea, French explorers set out for the same island, most of which has changed little since the Stone Age. Although director and expedition leader Pierre-Dominique Gaisseau contemplates the different eras as he stares out the jet window (“distances have lost their meaning”) this is no week at the beach. His group is to bisect the island on foot, a distance of 450 miles (150 of them uncharted) and an area still replete with headhunters and virtually impassable jungle growth. Gaisseau’s journey into “blank spots on the map” is memorable; the team deal with dense masses of undergrowth, monstrous rivers, and days spent nervously negotiating the island’s formidable central ridge, which tops off at 12,000 feet. Just as risky and unforgettable are their meet-ups with indigenous warrior tribes little changed since the days when Cook and his crew beat a hasty retreat from the island.
(Sky Above, Mud Below, 1961)