If you want to see the genesis of music concert films as we know them today, your best bet is Bert Stern’s Jazz on a Summer’s Day. Stern, who never made another film, is best known for his fashion and magazine photography (he shot the famous “last sitting” of Marilyn Monroe). He seems to have approached his subject — the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival — as an occasion to prove that music didn’t have to be merely recorded; the filmmaking itself could be as artful as the onstage sound. So the movie is itself a piece of jazz; in the first half of the film, the camera often wanders away from the stage to fixate on the boats in the America’s Cup yacht races. Under the opening credits, light and reflections play on the surface of the water, seeming to move to the rhythm of the first act, Jimmy Guiffre 3.
When I first saw Jazz on a Summer’s Day in the early ’90s, the intimate, roving camerawork looked so fresh and vital I thought the film could’ve been made the year I was watching it. It still looks as though it could’ve been made today. The camera gets right up against the performers — we see the sweat, the ecstasy of performance. Anita O’Day takes the stage for a couple of songs, and the movement of her white-gloved hands is mesmerizing. Sal Salvador seems to be having an out-of-body experience when playing guitar alongside Sonny Stitt. Louis Armstrong and Jack Teagarden share a warm, easy rapport born of decades of working together. They were ebony and ivory long before Paul and Stevie sat down at the piano.
Speaking of which, another reason the film feels timeless is that, watching it, you almost wouldn’t know it was filmed in the Jim Crow era. Very much pre-civil rights, Jazz on a Summer’s Day nonetheless gives us a vision of blacks and whites — on the stage and in the audience — joined by a shared passion for the music. (Stern was advised that the film wouldn’t play down south because it showed whites and Negroes together, even if only sitting next to each other.) The audience members in their thirties and forties, we feel, are too hip to be bigoted; the younger spectators are having too much fun dancing; and the apparent presence of weed seems to cross generational borders.
Chuck Berry hits the stage for “Sweet Little Sixteen” — I was reminded anew how much “Surfin’ USA” cribs from it — and though his rock number has been singled out by some as seeming incongruous at a jazz festival, I get why he’s there. “Black music,” even if co-opted by white boys, had crossed over to white kids in a big way by then. White girls get up and shake their booties to Berry’s guitar as he does his famous duck walk. (A sobering thought: the teenagers seen in the film are pushing 70 now. The movie itself turns 50 the year I write this.) Now, I’m aware that a lot of the kids who listened to Berry and Little Richard and other black performers still wouldn’t let them use the same drinking fountain; not only do I have a realistic sense of American history, I’ve also seen Hairspray. But the people in Jazz on a Summer’s Day seem more enlightened, somehow. For a few days, the races came together in Newport to enjoy themselves, and Stern caught it without making a big Sidney Poitier deal of it.
The movie is hip and artful; there’s a slight aesthetic chill attached to that — at times we get the sense that Stern is focusing on this person or that because compositionally it pleases him. We also visit a group of classical string musicians rehearsing in a cramped room, and later go back to the room while the bassist saws away and fills the air with photogenic cigarette smoke. Dixieland players also drive around town, favoring random people with their tunes; people get drunk and dance on their rooftops to the sound. Music is everywhere, inescapable, and the Newport seen in the film looks like some blissful seaside resort out of M. Hulot’s Holiday, only without Hulot and with a who’s who of jazz greats. It’s a deeply pleasurable experience.