Jazz on a Summer’s Day (Bert Stern, 1959)

The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents Jazz on a Summer’s Day.

In his sole effort in filmmaking, celebrated fashion photographer Bert Stern surveyed the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival to create a now-classic document of ’50s America and capture some of the most stunning images of live jazz ever brought to the silver screen, featuring performances by Louis Armstrong, Anita O’Day, Thelonius Monk, and Dinah Washington, as well as rock and roller Chuck Berry and gospel icon Mahalia Jackson. Stern, with assistance from editor and co-director Aram Avakian and jazz producer and musical director George Avakian, brings onscreen jazz music from smoky nightclubs to the colorfully sunny days of affluent Rhode Island, infusing these images with his distinctively clear and uncluttered aesthetic. Juxtapozing the Festival with footage of its audience, of life in and around Newport, and of the ongoing America’s Cup yacht races, Jazz on a Summer’s Day immortalizes the breezy cool of the era before it was overtaken by rock music and the tumultuous Sixties.

Disc Features:

  • New 2K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray
  • New audio commentary featuring jazz and film critic Gary Giddins and radio host Tom Reney
  • New introduction to the film by Giddins
  • New interview with musician Keith Richards
  • A Summer’s Day, an interactive documentary with director Bert Stern with additional scenes
  • Jammin’ the Blues, photographer Gjon Mili’s 1944 short film with optional audio commentary by Giddins
  • Selection of unreleased performances and footage
  • Stills gallery, featuring the work of renowned photographer Bruce Davidson
  • Optional captions identifying artists and song titles
  • Trailer
  • PLUS: An interview with Stern with John Guida and an essay by historian Arik Devens

Bert Stern was already an established and sought after commercial photographer when he filmed Jazz on a Summer’s Day in 1958. He had made a name for himself with an unconventional ad campaign for Smirnoff vodka and had become a prominent fashion photographer whose work appeared in Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, however the 28 year-old was committed to making his first film before he turned 30 and he found his subject in the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival. It would be his only movie as filmmaking was simply too time-consuming in Stern’s view and continued efforts in the medium would detract from his still photography work. Bert Stern’s prolific career in photography would last another 50 years, best known for his three-day “last sitting” with Marilyn Monroe and the poster photo for Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita, but his sole effort in cinema has since become a classic and even somewhat controversial masterpiece hailed as an early model for the concert documentary form and an important record of the era.

The Newport Jazz Festival was originally established in 1954 by Louis and Elaine Lorillard (of the Lorillard tobacco empire) and organized by George Wein, pianist and founder of Boston’s Storyville jazz club. Wein had long wanted to film the Festival but struggled with the idea of obtaining the necessary releases for the acts. Stern’s solution was to fund the film himself and create a complete work before pursuing the requisite clearances. With a budget of $115,000, Stern provided all the lighting, brought on Aram Avakian as a co-director and editor, hired his brother, Columbia Records jazz producer George Avakian, as musical director and committed the record label’s full resources to the audio-taping. Stern had hoped to improvise a romantic narrative centred around a young man and woman à la the films coming out from France, but a few days shooting caused Stern to realize they had neither the script nor the onscreen chemistry to proceed and so they were left with exploring the Festival and Newport to find the film’s content. Armed with five cameras and his film experience working in the Army photo department while stationed in Japan during the Korean War, Bert Stern set upon documenting the Festival acts and looking for complimentary imagery in and around Newport.

For purists, Jazz on a Summer’s Day is both a miracle and a tragedy. On the one hand, it is a rare document of the time that features jazz icons like Thelonius Monk, Dinah Washington, Sonny Stitt, Anita O’Day, Chico Hamilton, and Louis Armstrong (who alone took $25,000 of the film’s budget in clearances). On the other hand, the film neglects performances by Duke Ellington and his Orchestra, Willie “the Lion” Smith, the Dave Brubeck Quartet, Lester Young, Sonny Rollins, Ray Charles, and the Miles Davis Sextet (with Cannonball Adderly, John Coltrane, and Bill Evans). Criticisms for these omissions are sometimes laid at the feet of Stern, who had essentially no knowledge of the artists in attendance. Stern relied on George Avakian to identify the relevant acts to dedicate their film stock toward and so it is Avakian who is more often the focus of accusations of poor judgement, commercialism, and even a subtle racism. It is important to note however that filming did not begin until Friday (missing the Thursday program) and that part of George Avakian’s role was to also select performances that were likely to clear rights, thereby adding to the challenges he faced in vetting and organizing the production’s resources and perhaps giving some preferential treatment to Columbia artists.

Strict jazz fans additionally cry foul at supposed crossover acts booked that year and that find screen time in Summer’s Day – Big Maybelle’s gravel-voiced blues, “the world’s greatest gospel singer” Mahalia Jackson and her after-midnight rendition of “The Lord’s Prayer,” and Chuck Berry’s somewhat embarrassed version of “Sweet Little Sixteen” backed by an array of patronizing jazzmen. Berry’s performance was a sign of the times, called by Keith Richards “a parable on film of the changeover of power between jazz and rock and roll.” Richards recalls in his autobiography seeing Stern’s film with Mick Jagger as a youngster, remarking:

The film had Jimmy Giuffre, Louis Armstrong, Thelonious Monk, but Mick and I went to see the man. That black coat. He was brought on stage–a very bold move by someone–with Jo Jones on drums, a jazz great. Jo Jones was, among others, Count Basie’s drummer. I think it was Chuck’s proudest moment, when he got up there. It’s not a particularly good version of “Sweet Little Sixteen,” but it was the attitude of the cats behind him, solid against the way he looked and the way he was moving. They were laughing at him. They were trying to fuck him up. Jo Jones was raising his drumstick after every few beats and grinning as if he were in play school. Chuck knew he was working against the odds. And he wasn’t really doing very well, when you listen to it, but he carried it. He had a band behind him that wanted to toss him, but he still carried the day. Jo Jones blew it, right there. Instead of a knife in the back, he could have given him the shit. But Chuck forced his way through.

George Wein was decidedly against Berry’s attendance at Newport (a “capitulation to the pressures of a rock-and-roll generation”) and cringed at his onstage duck walk, but the Saturday night blues showcase was the ambit of producer John Hammond and the audience in attendance loved Berry. Remarking on his unintended legacy, Wein stated in his memoir, “So I get the credit for being a visionary …but John deserves the credit. Incidentally, I’ve grown to like Chuck Berry’s music.”

Even worse for jazzophiles is Bert Stern’s refusal to pay due reverence to his musical subjects. How dare he obscure Thelonious Monk’s rendition of “Blue Monk” behind footage of and announcements for the America’s Cup yacht race, introduce “Loose Walk” with Sonny Stitt in mid-solo, or lay an interview between Elaine Lorillard and radio reporter Donna Larsen over George Shearing’s “George in Brazil?” These objections, though, are questions of degree as Jazz on a Summer’s Day succeeds not just by capturing great jazz performers for posterity but by representing jazz in new and vibrant contexts. Stern’s “impression of jazz …was something downstairs in a dark room. [Jazz on a Summer’s Day] brought jazz out in the sun and it was different.” First and foremost is Stern’s election to shoot the film in vibrant colours, a decision inspired by seeing The Red Shoes a decade earlier (“the first color movie that used color instead of it being in colour”). By day, Stern captures the dappled sun on rippling ocean waves, while at night he turns his cameras into the stage lights and bathes his musicians in saturated red auras. Secondly, Stern attends to the juxtaposition of rich and poor in old-money Newport’s Jazz Festival. Yacht races and elderly citizens contrast with buses full of African-American attendees, shirtless children pushing strollers in adult heels, and beer-fuelled house parties spilling out onto roofs. And Stern merges these contrasting images into wonderful knots: a roving jalopy full of Yale students playing Dixieland, Nathan Gershman playing Bach on the cello in a smoky practice room, and Anita O’Day stealing the show with her up-tempo vocals and scat while poshly dressed for tea in white gloves and a wide, feathered hat.

To its credit, Jazz on a Summer’s Day offers no moralizing interviews on the meaning of jazz, the problems of race or class or generation, or the promise of music to remedy or aggravate these ills. To the extent that Stern looks for answers, he does so by “poking around” with tight close-ups of the performers, with lingering views of their audiences, and with the possible transcendences that the music might offer to the otherwise banal life outside the Festival’s grounds. Stern finds a prosperous, stable, and progressing America in the desegregated acts and audiences of the Jazz Festival (particularly in Terry Gibbs sharing the vibes with Dinah Washington during “All of Me” and Louis Armstrong and Jack Teagarden’s cavalier rendition of “Rockin’ Chair”), in young white girls screaming for a somewhat subdued Chuck Berry, and in Mahalia Jackson’s heart-melting statement to the watching crowd, “You make me feel like I’m a star.” Above all, there is a breezy leisure to Summer’s Day, notwithstanding a few consternated faces of older residents apparently feeling a bit under siege. Young and old, black and white, observe the Festival patiently, bobbing their heads, puffing on pipes, and eating popsicles. The pace feels natural, in keeping with the cool ocean tide pools that lay serenely along the coast and the lively ocean sprays of yachts and ferries. In Jazz on a Summer’s Day, Stern reveals the secret of jazz, taking it out of monochrome nightclubs to breathe free in the world outside and to be made all the more glamourous in this new expanse.

Jazz on a Summer’s Day‘s DVD by New Yorker Video has been out of print for some time now, although the film and soundtrack seems to be continually released in multiple editions by British record label Charly. A Criterion Collection release of Bert Stern’s film would be a welcome addition to the imprint’s steadily growing collection of concert films and a significant correction for a film that should still remain present in hard media form. Summer’s Day has been subject to numerous cover treatments, but we have a fondness for this poster featuring a scoop of ice cream resting in the bell of a trumpet, an illustration used by Charly for one of its soundtrack cover treatments.

Credits: For this imagined edition, we’ve brought over the New Yorker Video DVD’s documentary A Summer’s Day and included photographer Gjon Mili’s short film Jammin’ the Blues, as it also involves a photographer-turned-filmmaker, contrasts with Jazz on a Summer’s Day by its black and white cinematography, and is an inventive and clever jazz film in its own right. We’ve cribbed off Criterion’s recent release of John Murray Anderson’s King of Jazz (1930) by including jazz and film critic Gary Giddins on various special features, electing here to pair him with NPR personality and occasional collaborator Tom Reney. Bruce Davidson was on hand during the production taking still photographs and so we’ve imagined a gallery of those, and we’ve supposed some unreleased footage and performances given Stern’s previous comment that some unused footage may exist. Finally, we’ve imagined an essay by CriterionCast contributor Arik Devens given his excellent podcast A History of Jazz.

I’m no expert in jazz and so this post owes great debts to Alan Kurtz’s “The Dozens: Jazz on a Summer’s Day,” Kevin Hagopian’s film notes, Tom Reney’s “Jazz on a Summer’s Day: Bringing Jazz Into the Sun” for JazzTimes, Bert Stern’s interview with John Guida for Barnes&Noble.com, and Ian McCrudden and Robbie Cavolina’s documentary Anita O’Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer.

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