A photographer1 who had never made a movie before and would never direct another feature filmed a music festival, allowing the visuals to wander far afield from the performers themselves. It became a classic, preserved for its cultural significance, and a point of discussion and dissension long after jazz left the pop culture mainstream.
The film came out a year after the event, and one before the 1960s would change everything.
Freebody Park. Newport, Rhode Island, July 1958. We're hearing jazz not in some after hours joint but under blue umbrella skies and then a starlit night, one perfect day.
Strictly speaking, it's four days, condensed, shuffled, and reorganized. The film may also contains clips from a mysterious fifth day. We'll return to that point later.
The soundtrack delivers the music, but the camera spends much of its time on everything else that's going on. This includes, as it happens, the America's Cup, setting sail the same weekend. The approach has not met with everyone's approval, but I find the results visually fascinating. Playing harbor announcements over Thelonius Monk-- sure, that's disrespectful.2 Cutting from jazz greats and hearing some of their music over shots of the yachts, the traffic, people grooving in the park, and the kid hopping the festival fence? That's showing us the day, dig?
We see a lot of the crowd, less racially diverse than the line-up, but mixing more comfortably as day fades into night. We also see the Chico Hamilton Quintet jamming in a nearby house, kids playing on the beach, young adults dancing on a roof, and an older woman dressed for 1925, tootling her way to the concert in a vintage car. Allegedly, some of the private party scenes were recorded a week later and dropped into the film to enhance a portrait of the "Summer's Day."
Some moments remain visually stunning, waves of the bay and a wanderer on the shore reflecting the moods of the music and sounds of the instruments.
Jazz... also features occasional scenes of some college jazzniks driving around town in a 1921 Studebaker (and, at one point, riding a kiddie train) and blowing Dixie. These build a bridge to people whose grasp of jazz ended at the Jazz Age, and the group includes future avant-garde trumpeter, Roswell Rudd. However, it rankles knowing these dudes get coverage while the film excises Miles Davis and John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, the Dave Brubeck Quartet, Benny Goodman, and numerous others. The concert includes jazz artists experimental and African-American. Miles and Rollins may have been too much of one or both for the filmmakers. But what, then, to make of the failure to include Brubeck or Goodman? We can only speculate. Obviously, the film could not have included everyone. Some excluded performances by particularly notable acts occurred on Thursday and Friday. According to various sources, the first couple days of shooting did not go well for the filmmakers and that may have forced some of their choices. Some celebrated artists released their own projects of material recorded at the festival. It's at least possible that the filmmakers lacked clearance for everything they recorded. And yes, it seems likely the filmmakers wanted to reach a broad mainstream audience, with all of the implications that phrase carries for 1950s America. Whatever the reasons, many of the absences diminish the film. It runs 85 minutes; a full two hours could have expanded our experience of the festival a little and shown a broader and more representative range of jazz, 1958.
Still, what we do see and hear include some of jazz's greatest players, and a smattering of lesser-known lights.
At least two of the performances captured wouldn't qualify as jazz.
Rock and Roll star Chuck Berry appears, backed up by several jazz musicians, but serving straight-up Chuck. Some purists may have been irked, but he receives a positive response from the crowd and he demonstrates the diversity of what could be found at the festival.
The film ends with some anecdotes and performances by jazz great Louis Armstrong and then a midnight singing of The Lord's Prayer by Mahalia Jackson. Jazz to gospel: these performances occurred a day apart but, like much of the film, flow seamlessly into one another and end our fictional day.
The film might have done more to highlight the musicians themselves. Nevertheless, it provides an entertaining, music-based immersive experience of a place and time. It has been slightly fictionalized through creative editing, and the festival itself has entered the realm of the mythic. Jazz still formed a part of the general culture in 1958, and the festival itself was only five years old. The crowds were thick and enthusiastic, but remained workable and generally amiable. We're sharing in something that we cannot now experience in reality.
The 1960 festival saw violence that led to many events being cancelled. The festival itself would be suspended for a year. That same year also saw a rival festival organized by Charles Mingus and Max Roach, who felt that Newport ignored the more innovative players-- the same charge levied against the film. The turbulent decade saw growing disputes, swelling crowds, and complaints about the increased presence of pop and rock acts. The event moved to New York and then returned to Newport, by which time jazz had lost its place in the zeitgeist. It's still out there and worth hearing, and Jazz on a Summer's Day remains a cinematic experiment worth experiencing, a constructed picture of a lost time.
The festival's actual, complete line-up (some of the excised performances have since been released digitally):
Thursday, July 3, 1958:
Rex Stewart and the Ellington Alumni All Stars (not in film)
Marian McPartland Trio (not in film)
Miles Davis (with, among others, Coltrane) (not in film)
The Dave Brubeck Quartet (not in film)
Friday, July 4, 1958:
John La Porta Quartet (not in film)
Jimmy Guiffre Trio
Newport International Jazz Band
Benny Goodman and his Orchestra (not in film)
Jimmy Rushing (not in film)
Saturday, July 5, 1958:
Randy Weston Trio (not in film)
Don Butterfield (not in film)
Willie "The Lion" Smith (not in the film)
Rex Stewart (not in film)
Julia Lee (not in film)
Bernard Peiffer (not in film)
Len Wincester (not in film)
Herb Pomeroy and his Orchestra (not in film)
Pete Johnson (not in film)
Mary Lou Williams (not in film)
Joe Turner (not in film)
Ray Charles (not in film but released an album of his performance)
Gerry Mulligan Quartet (not in film)
Maynard Ferguson and his Orchestra (not in film)
Dakota Staton (not in film)
Pee Wee Russell (not in film)
Sunday, July 6, 1958:
Sonny Rollins Trio (not in film)
The Horace Silver Quintet (not in film)
Tony Scott Quintet (not in film)
Les Jazz Modes (not in film)
Billy Taylor Trio (not in film)
J.J. Johnson (not in film)
Lee Konitz (not in film)
Newport International Jazz Band
Jack Teargarden and Bobby Hackett (not in film)
Chris Connor (not in film)
George Shearing Quintet (not in film)
Max Roach Quartet (not in film, but released an album of their performance)
Terry Gibbs (not in film)
Urbie Green (not in film)
Don Elliot (not in film)
Louis Armstrong & His All-Stars
1. Bert Stern made his mark as a commercial photographer, and remains mostly famous for this film, the final modelling shoot of Marilyn Monroe, and the advertising campaign for Stanley Kubrick's adaptation of Lolita. Sue Lyon wears those iconic heart-shaped glasses only in Stern's photographs-- never in the film. He made at least one more documentary for TV, a 1967 account of the model, Twiggy.
2. "...it makes perfect sense, given the deep historical connection between jazz and sailboats; it's a little-known fact that the great innovators of jazz... came up with their advanced musical inspirations not at jam sessions in after-hours joints but at the helms of yachts" (Richard Brody, being a smart-ass, The New Yorker October 25, 2016).