I was excited to read about the availability of a new restored version of a legendary and influential music film call Jazz On A Summer’s Day. Created in 1958 documenting the Newport Jazz Festival that year, the film was put together by then unlikely candidate, noted fashion photographer in Bert Stern.
There is a quite fantastic back story on how this film came together told in a great essay included in the new Kino Lorber Blu-ray Disc edition of Jazz On A Summer’s Day written by jazz critic, writer and Newport Jazz Festival expert Nate Chinen, so I don’t want to spoil his story for you.
But in short, this film was created to help elevate the status of jazz as a popular art and music form in the public eye. They wanted to show that jazz music wasn’t just limited to dark basement clubs and late night party culture — I suspect the genre had at that time gotten some bad press, what with the substance abuses of noted Jazz icons like Billie Holiday, Lester Young and Charlie Parker probably not helping matters much in terms of public acceptance at the time.
Where the film takes some fascinating artful turns begins with its producer/director who came from the Madison Avenue fashion photography universe. So Bert Stern knew how to deliver a sense of close up elegance through a camera lens.
Coupled with skillful storytelling editing by Aram Avakian — brother of Columbia Records executive George Avakian who was integral to this film’s genesis — Jazz On A Summer’s Day is wonderfully successful on multiple levels.
A clever combination of extremely tight handheld camera work and creative cutaways to people in the audience — and other mood setting scenes — delivers a tale of the boundary breaking possibilities of the music.
Showing the upscale alongside the average, all colors and ages sitting and sometimes dancing side-by-side, peacefully and engaged deeply in the sounds, the music is the connective glue between these diverse communities.
As a film on its own Jazz On A Summer’s Day is a wonder to behold and it works well 60 years on as an 80 minute long entertainment. Watching this will be ideal for anybody who is just getting into Jazz.
And for those who are already into the music, you will want to see this new 4K transfer to absorb the stunning color footage of legends who just jump off the screen including Thelonious Monk, Louis Armstrong, Chico Hamilton, Eric Dolphy, Dinah Washington and the great Mahalia Jackson!
How amazing to see Gerry Mulligan leading his band in all its jumbo Baritone Sax wielding glory.
We even get a glimpse of Chuck Berry at the peak of his initial popularity, young and vivacious best, sparring with a Clarinet player in the house band. Called The Newport Blues Band, the group includes the great Jo Jones on drums and Ray Bryant on Piano.
It is perhaps the first time I’ve seen a Clarinet solo rock! I’m not sure who the player is but I think it might be saxophonist Buddy Tate although Tony Scott is supposed to have been in that band too (according to the original event program which I found posted online, click here to look at that).
Probably my favorite moment is watching Louis Armstrong perform his classic “Rocking Chair” with his lifetime friend Jack Teagarden. You can feel their love for one another which just embodies everything that event was about.
Ray Davies of The Kinks once sang how “celluloid heroes never really die” and this is one of those instances where, indeed, they feel so fresh and alive on screen it is almost unnerving at times.
The film was restored from best available sources in a 4K transfer and the look is quite spectacular, all things considered. Perhaps my only disappointment is the sound quality which was taken from best available digital sources. It actually sounds excellent all things considered but it it might have sounded better with a bit more attention.
Initially it sounds like most of the music is coming out of the left channel but once you get past Anita O’Day’s segment the sound balances out. It is a very real raw mix in that sense, so when a mic on the right channel isn’t being used initially, the sound comes more from the left (and vice versa). Periodically I heard some tape speed issue and at certain points in the film the vocals aren’t exactly in sync with the onscreen movement (most noticeably on Anita O’Day’s performance).
Apparently there were numerous tape reels in deteriorating condition in the producer’s archives so the mind boggles as to whether any sort of digital restoration might be possible down the road.
If you’ll let me dream for a moment: perhaps they can “bake” the tapes and transfer them over to digital. Maybe they have and just need some budget to do micro surgery on the tapes (such as was done on some James Brown tracks many years ago). Perhaps there were tape speed issues and too much wow and flutter, so maybe the good folks at Plangent Processes could restore and stabilize them.
I wonder if they had reached out to fans and discovered other sources that might be available somewhere — there is a scene in the film of one fan shooting 8 mm film for a bit — and then and synced that up with any other available soundtracks from the archives?
Ahhh… I know… keep dreamin’ baby, dream…
Anyhow, the main reason you should want to buy Jazz On A Summer’s Day is simply to enjoy it for what it is: a classic music documentary — arguably the first — that looks better now than it ever has. And given that it only cost less than $20 it is a no-brainer to add to your collection.
If you want to listen to some music from the Newport Jazz Festival, following are links to a number of live sets from this 1958 festival which have been released previously and are streaming on Tidal and Qobuz. Just click on artists and you’ll jump to the service which you can hear if you are a subscriber. On Tidal: Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong, Thelonious Monk, Anita O’Day and Mahalia Jackson. On Qobuz: Miles Davis, Dave Brubeck, Mahalia Jackson, Jimmy Giuffre