As we head towards the end of August (how did that happen?), we will soon leave behind the dog days of summer and welcome those cool autumn evenings. It’s now or never to take advantage of the remains of a season that feels like it was robbed from us—it’s time to dance, it’s time to sing, it’s time to celebrate and remember better times with good movies and good music. And to help with that, may we offer Bert Stern’s JAZZ ON A SUMMER’S DAY, the 1958 documentary recently restored in 4K by Kino Lorber and IndieCollect Restoration, one of the new additions to our Virtual Movie Palace.
Selected by the National Film Registry in 1999 for preservation in the Library of Congress, Jazz on a Summer’s Day may not have the structure or themes you find in a typical documentary, but it is nevertheless gripping: an impression of a special moment in time that records the activities of a small town on a day where it seems like nothing could go wrong. Life outside of Newport, Rhode Island does not exist in Bert Stern’s film, and it feels like if he were to ask his subjects about events elsewhere, nobody would know or care. It’s a preservation of a single glorious day filled with terrific music, boat sailing, raucous parties, finger snapping and, of course, dancing.
Stern opens the movie on a dock, looking over the calm surface of the bay with the Jimmy Giuffre 3 playing over top. The ease and motion of the water foreshadows the overall mood and tone of the film, one that evokes a calming sedation of sorts and offers a relief from the chaos of our world. It arouses both focus and meditation, as Stern provides few camera tricks and rather lets the music wash over some simple scenes of performance and leisurely living. As improvisation is a key characteristic of jazz, the style works as the perfect metaphor for what this film allows the viewer today: calming order in our chaotic lives.
The film features performances by Thelonious Monk, Anita O’Day, Dinah Washington, Chuck Berry, Chico Hamilton, Louis Armstrong, and Mahalia Jackson, filmed by Stern almost exclusively from the foot of the stage. The camera points up at them, documenting the authority these musical legends have over the festival grounds as well as their craft. Anita O’Day’s makes her rapid scat rendition of “Tea for Two” appear like mere possession, and Dinah Washington’s performance of “All of Me” looks effortless as she punctuates it with a few rounds on the xylophone.
Washington’s performance, featured at the midpoint of the film, also helps the day transition into a lively evening, which delivers a welcome energy to the film as we see the audience now on their feet, when up to this point, we had only seen them lazily viewing the performances from the comforts of their lawn chairs. Now we see Chuck Berry take the stage with an unprecedented sound, one that for modern viewers feels like an omen of the rock ‘n’ roll explosion that will strike America in the coming decade and overshadow these homely events.
We’re then blessed with the humor and personality of Louis Armstrong, who speaks to the audience and has a conversation with Jack Teagarden before they execute their delightful duet of “Rocking Chair”.
And finally, as midnight passes in Newport, Mahalia Jackson welcomes Sunday morning with her soulful rendition of “The Lord’s Prayer”, proving that the description she is brought on stage with, “World’s Greatest Gospel Singer”, is more than a simple label.
The film plays as a nostalgia trip to yesteryear but is more importantly a testament to the quality of performance that jazz allows. Jazz on A Summer’s Day is a single moment that will never happen again, which is why Bert Stern’s documentation is so special and important to see today.
We’ve had so many great music-focused documentaries open in our Virtual Movie Palace the past few weeks and it’s not stopping here. Next week, be on the lookout for Vinyl Nation and Mr. Soul! opening on Friday, August 28, just in time for Record Store Day on the 29th. And if you’re looking to complete your viewing of Jazz on a Summer’s Day with a double-feature, I suggest you find D.A Pennebaker’s Monterey Pop, filmed at the eponymous California music festival in 1967, just 9 years later but in what seems like a completely different world. Have a great week and stay safe!