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.