The Newport Jazz Festival is America’s oldest jazz festival, having begun in 1954. All the luminaries of the genre have played there, and many of the best recordings of their music were recorded there. In 1958, celebrity photographer Bert Stern came to document it. And rather than being about the music, Jazz on a Summer’s Day is truly a document of a place and a time. From the aspect ratio to the style of shooting it is very much a film of its era. In addition, the audience for the festival is noticeably only somewhat integrated and mostly upper class. Not that the music isn’t present. It’s just that it’s the background for images of the town, the people, the sailboats, the privileged. It’s a fascinating documentary that was named to the National Film Registry in 1999, and its restoration was funded by the National Film Preservation Board of the Library of Congress for the film’s 60th Anniversary.
There are no interviews, narration, or talking heads. It’s a series of performances by jazz greats including Louis Armstrong, Thelonius Monk, Gerry Mulligan, Anita O’Day, Chuck Berry, Dinah Washington, Big Mabelle, and Mahalia Jackson. Great music, though not IMHO any of their earth-shattering performances. The draw of the film is what surrounds the festival. Cutting from the stage to women in their pearl necklaces or to the sailboats competing in the 1958 America’s Cup out on the sound. It’s the playground of the rich and the musicians are just visiting. And the beauty of the film is that it was directed by a great photographer who understood how to frame his shots and to put together powerful juxtapositions.
If you’re a jazz lover, you’ll definitely appreciate it. But as a slice of life film, it also has a lot to recommend it. Turn up the speakers on your TV and enjoy.
The film is a 4K restoration by IndieCollect and is available now in virtual cinemas through Kino Marquee.