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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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