This 1960 Jazz Film Shaped Concert Documentaries as We Know Them
With Newport Jazz Festival this weekend, we look back at 'Jazz on a Summer's Day' and the documentary's influence.
A still from the 1960 documentary Jazz on a Summer's Day
Bert Stern was a legendary photographer whose images, like the iconic Egyptian-pyramid ad for Smirnoff and the poster photo for Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita, helped spur advertising’s “creative revolution” in the 1960s. But he was more than just an “Original Mad Man,” as one 2011 documentary dubbed him. He was also a magazine photographer who shot Elizabeth Taylor, Audrey Hepburn, Kate Moss, and, most famously, Marilyn Monroe, in the nude, weeks before her death. His iconic LA session with Monroe is known as “The Last Sitting.”
And so it makes sense that Stern’s lone feature film, the documentary Jazz on a Summer’s Day, which he shot at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, feels like an alluring advertisement or a live-action magazine spread. The colors are vibrant: bright red lipstick, white sailboats slicing through blue water, gleaming saxophones and trumpets. And the scenes are hypnotic: a 31-year-old Chuck Berry stomping across the stage during “Sweet Little Sixteen,” showing off hip-swiveling moves that clearly inspired Elvis Presley; Anita O’Day singing “Sweet Georgia Brown” while dressed immaculately in a black evening gown, white gloves, and a feather-festooned hat. “There is not a moment that, freeze framed, would not be an absolutely stunning still picture,” the film critic Judith Crist once said of the film. The Chicago Reader calls it “probably the best feature-length jazz concert movie ever made.”
And yet the film seems half-forgotten. You won’t find it on best-musical-documentary lists by Vulture, Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, the Telegraph, or The Village Voice. TIME once called it an “overlooked” summer movie. For whatever reason, Jazz on a Summer’s Day feels left out of a canon that includes Woodstock, Monterey Pop, Gimme Shelter, The Last Waltz, Wattstax, and Stop Making Sense.
This is a shame. Because the 1960 film precedes—and, in many ways, paved the way for—those later documentaries. It has that same hungry eye for sociological detail: faces, hairstyles, clothing, dance moves. It offers mesmerizing close-up shots of musicians that one Jazz on a Summer’s Day reviewer described as “embarrassingly intimate.” You might even say the film where the American concert documentary genre begins.
Concert documentaries are often about more than just the music. Gimme Shelter doubles as a true-crime film. (Promotional posters shouted, “THE MUSIC THAT THRILLED THE WORLD…AND THE KILLING THAT STUNNED IT.”) Wattstax, a festival film interspersed with stand-up bits by Richard Pryor, is a celebration of being black in America. The Gospel According to Al Green shows what happens when an R&B superstar retreats to the church at the height of his performing powers. The Last Waltz is about, among other things, Van Morrison’s magical, drunken, high-kicking, skintight/sequined-clothing rendition of “Caravan.”
To hear Bert Stern describe it, Jazz on a Summer’s Day is the product of when a “poor kid [from] Brooklyn” is dropped into “a magical world of the very-rich” with a camera in his hand. The Newport Jazz Fest—now in its 62nd year; this year’s festival begins today—was still in its infancy in 1958, and Stern was “intrigued with the combination of jazz and Newport, kind of rich and poor,” he once said in an interview. And, because in that era jazz was most often shot in black and white, he also wanted to pull the music, literally, out of the shadows. “My impression of jazz was [that it was] something downstairs in a dark room,” he said. “This brought jazz out into the sun.”
The resulting film, which opens with the glistening waters of Newport harbor, is an exquisite historical document. Anyone doing research on Eisenhower’s America would be well served by studying Stern’s footage of Newport’s high-society ladies; suburban dads fiddling with cameras; and twenty-somethings dancing, clapping, drinking beer, and making out with each another. Clothing- and hairstyle-wise, the film could pass for a deleted early episode of Mad Men.
But the main attraction, of course, is the music. Newport Jazz Fest co-founder George Wein once said he wanted the event to sound like his marathon jazz-bingeing nights Manhattan when, hopping from Greenwich Village to Midtown to Harlem, he heard “Dixieland, big bands, swing, unique singers, and modern jazz.” Stern’s film offers all those genres and more, from the upbeat Latin jazz of George Shearing, to the delicate flute musings Eric Dolphy, to the raucous and raspy blues of Big Maybelle. The camera often lingers for minutes at a time on performers’ faces—staring, basically—and captures America’s improvisatory art form in minute detail: Jimmy Giuffre, as he bobs and honks on the sax during the film’s opening number; the sweat-dripping concentration of Chico Hamilton during a drum solo; Thelonious Monk, clomping away at the piano in all of his weirdo-genius glory.
Through it all, there are no talking-head interviews or narrators, only occasional announcements from the festival’s MC. The film is light on story, heavy on mood. It feels like an innocent, almost Norman Rockwell-esque prequel to Gimme Shelter, a film brimming with fear, violence, and bad vibes. For 85 minutes, Sterns simply delivers charismatic, sharply dressed, wildly talented performers in one of the country’s oldest seaside towns. Even the film’s depiction of race is utopian; black and white audience members co-mingle so happily and casually that Stern said he was warned not to screen the film in the South.
The late 1950s were “a very positive period, and certainly Newport was very progressive,” he said. “It was a sunny day; that was what was going on. We had cameras and film, and we shot.”
It’s now familiar to see concert films to end with big-name stars or virtuoso performances. Think of the Pope-like, police-escorted arrival of Isaac Hayes at the end of Wattstax, when he takes stage, introduced by Reverend Jesse Jackson Jr., as his band explodes into “Shaft.” Think of Ravi Shankar’s transfixing performance at the end of Monterey Pop, which triggers a sustained standing ovation. Think of the one-two punch of “Take Me to the River” and “Crosseyed and Painless” at the end of Stop Making Sense—the euphoric climax of a film that begins with David Byrne alone onstage, performing “Psycho Killer” with an acoustic guitar.
Jazz on a Summer’s Day is no different. In the final quarter of the film, we see the film’s top billed star, Louis Armstrong, whose film rights were secured by Stern for $25,000. Dressed in a navy blue suit and bowtie, he delights the crowd with singing, trumpet playing, and between-songs rapport about touring overseas. Watching the footage, you feel as though you’ve not only seen him perform, but met him.
But Armstrong he is not the final voice of Jazz on a Summer’s Day. That would be Mahalia Jackson, who is introduced as “the world’s greatest gospel singer.” By the time she takes the stage, it’s past midnight, and the audience looks a bit tipsy and tired. But she snaps them to attention with the sheer power of her voice. Jackson doesn’t need much in the way of musical accompaniment; she’s backed by a piano and a softly played upright bass. With stage lights shining a halo over her head, she ends her set with “The Lord’s Prayer,” her voice swelling higher and louder as she sings, “Give us this day, our daily bread…lead us not into temptation…deliver us from evil…”
As she sings, the camera pans to the dumbstruck crowd—a throng of faces lit up by the stage lights. When she finishes, the words “END OF A SUMMER’S DAY” appear, the screen goes black, and the credits roll.
Philip Eil is a freelance journalist based in Providence, Rhode Island. Follow him on Twitter.