Monthly Archives: June 2010

Jazz on Film: Jazz On a Summer’s Day

It’s fifty years since Brits first saw Jazz on a Summer’s Day, the film that launched a thousand jazz festivals.

Filmed at the Newport Jazz Festival of 1958 by fashion photographer Bert Stern – now best known as the guy who took the last photos of Marilyn Monroe – this evocative documentary instantly became a landmark in the music’s history.

Shot in colour, with what seems to have been elementary equipment, the film takes the viewer through the festival weekend from the stage being set up in preparation for the first concert, through to the finale – Mahalia Jackson’s serene and moving rendition of The Lord’s Prayer.

Memorable both musically and visually, Jazz on a Summer’s Day is an essay in style. Stern’s camera studies the musicians, offering viewers the chance to see as as well as hear their heroes play. Since most of these legendary figures are dead, it’s the closest we have to experiencing them playing live.

We see singer Anita O’Day teetering on to the stage in a tight black cocktail dress, high heels, feathery hat and white gloves – looking like she could have been the fashion inspiration for Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and performing what have become classic versions of Tea for Two and Sweet Georgia Brown.

We see Gerry Mulligan, the epitome of cool – both visually, with his crew cut and Ray Bans, and musically – shifting from foot to foot and rocking backwards and forwards as he blows his baritone sax, and watching pianist Thelonious Monk’s set with all the concentration of a regular fan.

Louis Armstrong mops his brow with his ever-handy white handkerchief, smiles his infectious grin, juts out his jaw and scats a little duet with trombonist Jack Teagarden as they perform a cheeky version of Rockin’ Chair.

A young Chuck Berry duckwalks across the stage, to the bemusement of jazz veterans and stuffier fans, as he performs his rollicking Sweet Little 16.

And the portraits of the audience are equally evocative:   couples smooch in the dark, beatniks shake their heads and smoke their joints; poppy-lipped, pony-tailed girls in pedal-pushers jive on the rooftops and window ledges of Newport mansions. There’s a real sense that the whole town has been taken over by the jazz festival.

In the rows of wooden seats in front of the outdoor stage, local society matrons in pearls sit alongside hip young out-of-towners. Gum-chewing teenagers, chain-smoking posers, babies and children – they’re all there, all enjoying the music. The whole atmosphere is of the kind of laid-back joy which good jazz inspires – and the way the film gets this across is nothing short of poetic.

It’s no wonder that everyone was so happy during that jazz festival: consider the wealth of talent that was on their doorsteps over that July weekend. The running order, as it appeared in that week’s New Yorker magazine, reads like a Who’s Who of jazz: Duke Ellington, Dave Brubeck, Paul Desmond, Marian McPartland, Miles Davis, Cannonball Adderley, Rex Stewart, Benny Goodman, Willie “The Lion” Smith, Pee Wee Russell, Joe Turner, Pete Johnson, Lee Konitz  … and those were the ones who didn’t make it into Stern’s movie. (Stern wasn’t even a jazz fan!)

I’ve read that when the film opened in my hometown of Glasgow, in June 1960, the owner of the local “thinking person’s” cinema, the Cosmo (now the GFT), invited all the city’s jazz musicians to come along to the first screening. It soon became one of the cinema’s most popular films – and something of an annual event. These days, we have to make-do with watching it on DVD or on YouTube.. Here are  some highlights:

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CD Recommendations

Carol Sloane: We’ll Meet Again (Arbors Records ARCD 19400)
*****
Dearest Duke, Carol Sloane’s last CD on Arbors, was a glorious affair which showcased her breathy, lyrical voice with just piano and Ken Peplowski on clarinet or tenor sax. Peplowski is reunited with Sloane on this collection of love songs and once more his playing is a dream, whether he’s accompanying or soloing. Veteran guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli and bassist Steve LaSpina add their stylish playing to the mix, while an uncredited Aaron Weinstein (violin) guest-stars on a few tracks. One of the best CDs of the year so far…
Stan Getz All-Star Groups: Three Classic Albums Plus (Avid Jazz AMSC997)
*****
It’s difficult to get beyond the first disc in this double CD: it’s so sensational. Stan Getz’s 1957 encounter with the Oscar Peterson Trio is one of the must-have jazz albums and features tour-de-force performances all round. Getz blows I Want to Be Happy into smithereens, aided and abetted by the driving piano of Peterson, while the ballads are nothing short of sublime; Getz’s tenor at its most tender and beguiling. The other classic albums included are the 1955 Hamp and Getz (with vibes legend Lionel Hampton) and Jazz Giants, a superb all-star LP also from 1957.
Dave Brubeck & Paul Desmond: The Duets – 1975 (Verve 0602527068633)
****
Duo albums are a rare treat – especially when they’re as beautifully executed as this one, which was recorded in 1975. Pianist-composer Dave Brubeck and alto saxophonist Paul Desmond had the idea for the album when they played some duets together on a jazz cruise that year, and after listening to the results which had been recorded by the BBC (one of those original tracks is included here), they resolved to make an LP on dry land. Showcased in this setting, Desmond’s melancholy alto has an ethereal quality, while Brubeck’s piano is suitably haunting.
John Bunch: Do Not Disturb (Arbors Records ARCD 19403)
*****
The much-loved American jazz pianist John Bunch died in March at the age of 88. This wonderful trio album (with guitarist Frank Vignola and bassist John Webber) is his final CD. Recorded late last year, it gives little evidence of Bunch’s frailness as he swings energetically and as gracefully as ever through a typically diverse selection of numbers ranging from bop tunes to lesser-played Duke Ellington. Stand-outs include the Duke’s title tune, Sonny Rollins’ Doxy and Dave Brubeck’s In Your Own Sweet Way.

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