Lensing the Newport Mob: 60 Years Later, A Deep Dive Into 'Jazz on a Summer's Day'
Jazz on a Summer’s Day opened in New York in March of 1960.
The film, which had premiered at the previous year’s Venice Film Festival, is a pinnacle of jazz on the big screen, and one of the finest music documentaries ever made. After a period of unavailability on streaming services, it was recently given a 4K restoration by IndieCollect, and acquired by Kino Lorber — which has released the film on Blu-Ray and DVD. (I wrote the booklet essay.)
Below, find my essay Lensing the Newport Mob: On Jazz on a Summer’s Day. Originally delivered as a keynote at the Literature/Film Association Conference, it was presented again at the Newport Jazz Festival in 2018, half a century after the events depicted in the film. I’m proud to publish it under the banner of Deep Dive.
Let us begin in prayer.
To be more specific, here is Mahalia Jackson, the Queen of Gospel Music, singing “The Lord’s Prayer” at the Newport Jazz Festival. This is the scene that closes Jazz on a Summer’s Day — in earthly supplication, quieted by the power of a sublime and awesome presence. (By which I mean Mahalia, in case you couldn’t tell.)
Jazz On a Summer’s Day, which was actually filmed over several days in the summer of 1958, principally but not entirely at the Newport Jazz Festival, has often been heralded as the greatest jazz film ever made. Certainly it’s one of the most visually stunning: a color-saturated feast of sound and image that flouts the rules of cinema even as it snaps the phrase “motion picture” into literal focus.
The film is also a fascinating sociological document: a portrait of American leisure and privilege in the Eisenhower era, brimming with sunny hopes and sublimated tensions. Of course it’s also an influential marker for many subsequent concert films, like Monterey Pop, Gimme Shelter — even Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz. No less a filmmaker than Paul Thomas Anderson has called Jazz on a Summer’s Day “the gold standard, for me, of making a film out of music.” So the legacy of Bert Stern’s movie is larger than the box into which it’s typically slotted, even if its distinctive power depends in part on the growing distance between its moment and our own.
At the time of its release, on March 28, 1960, Jazz on a Summer’s Day was both acclaimed and dismissed, occasionally within the same review. Archer Winsten of the New York Post praised Stern as a first-time filmmaker of possibly limitless potential. Bosley Crowther, of The New York Times, was more ambivalent:
Scenically and sonically, Jazz on a Summer’s Day is great, but, in the cinematic area, it is inconsistent and thin. The shots, while entertaining, do not add up to much; some series, indeed, are pretentious and represent little more than a photographer’s whim. A better title for this picture — more descriptive of it, at least — might be “Jazz on a Photographer’s Field Day.” Or “Lensing the Newport Mob.”
Critics! But if you’ve seen the film, you may be nodding in agreement. Jazz on a Summer’s Day is absolutely the product of a photographer’s whim, as Stern would have been the first to admit. And the more you look into the conditions around its creation, the more you marvel at its air of carefree inevitability. Like most enduring cinema verité, it has a touch of fortuitous grace, the feeling of something that could just as easily have slipped right through our fingers. I’m not the first to suggest that this elusive quality bears special resonance with jazz, as a spontaneous discipline and an improviser’s art.
So my aim in this Deep Dive is to situate the film in its cultural moment, with respect to jazz in general, and the early Newport Jazz Festival in particular. This is a worthwhile exercise in itself, but it also clarifies any formal analysis of the film, shedding light on the decisions and omissions that make Jazz on a Summer’s Day such a success. I’d argue that you can’t really understand it outside of that context, which begins with the stature of jazz in postwar American culture, and the conscious effort to refurbish, refine and literally “class up” its popular image.
You Dig It, Sir?
George Wein was an enterprising young jazz pianist from Newton, Mass. when he opened Storyville, a jazz club originally in the basement room of Boston’s Copley Square Hotel.
Tellingly, the club bore the name of an infamous red-light district in New Orleans, in an act of playful appropriation. Storyville began as a haven for traditional jazz and Dixieland, but quickly evolved into Boston’s top room for the modern jazz of the time: Dave Brubeck, Ella Fitzgerald, Erroll Garner, Stan Getz.
(I should disclose here that I coauthored Myself Among Others: A Life in Music, George Wein’s 2003 autobiography, and consider him both a mentor and a friend. As of this writing, George is 94, and looking forward to covering the scene at Newport this summer, from aboard a trusty golf cart known as The Wein Machine.)
Storyville’s notoriety brought Wein into contact with the tobacco heir Louis Lorillard and his socialite wife Elaine, who were looking to create a jazz event in Newport, Rhode Island, the summer playground of the American elite. This larkish idea quickly led to the first Newport Jazz Festival, held at the International Tennis Hall of Fame in downtown Newport, 1954.
Time and tenure have endowed this festival with the air of a grand inevitability. It’s easy to forget how audacious it felt at the time. The challenge wasn’t an issue of audience interest — not in the popular heyday of Ella and Louis, Shearing and Peterson, Garner and Gillespie. (All of whom were on the festival bill that year, by the way.) What made the event so remarkable was the mere idea of presenting a festival of jazz in a setting like Newport, with the implicit assertion that this was music as deserving of cultural cachet as any classical program.
There’s a wonderfully dry New Yorker piece by Lillian Ross about that first festival; in it she quotes Wein as saying “This town will never be the same again. What I want is to get Doris Duke’s aunt or somebody else here with a big mansion to give us their place and let us turn it into a school of modern music. We could make Newport the jazz center of the world. What Salzburg is to Mozart! What Bayreuth is to Wagner! What Tanglewood is to classical music! That’s what we could make Newport be to jazz!” What must have sounded then like the height of wishful thinking and naked ambition now sounds pretty close to the mark.
That New Yorker piece bears the title “You Dig It, Sir?” after a remark uttered by an audience member in an afternoon panel discussion; his name was Gerry Mulligan. The deadpan charm of the quote rests on a presumption of incongruity. In other words, it’s a hoot just to contemplate the presence of jazz musicians in a setting such as this. It’s worth stating the obvious here — that Gerry Mulligan was a clean-cut white musician, and that there was much more turbulence over the reception of African-American artists in the seat of America’s Gilded Age.
The Newport Jazz Festival was formed as a nonprofit with a board of advisors. And at one board meeting late in 1955, there was a spirited debate over the issue of racial discrimination in Newport, come festival time. The minutes of that meeting are illuminating. Some members of the board, like Alan Morrison, the editor of Ebony magazine, propose relocating the festival to a more cosmopolitan and socially progressive setting, like New York City. Wein voices a practical objection, and so does John Hammond, the Columbia Records producer, and a product of Vanderbilt stock himself. Discussing the advantage of holding the festival in Newport, Hammond points out the unparalleled publicity value.
He goes on:
As far as the world acceptance of jazz is concerned, I think many of us who are on this advisory committee have been fighting for jazz for a long time. We have no particular love for Newport—I less than almost anybody here with family, relatives, and forbears all coming from Newport. It is a kind of society and a kind of life—everything that I abhor. Yet in one sense of the word we have brought democracy to Newport, which was the last place in the world where it could have been expected to be found in America.
Hammond’s point was soon validated in a number of ways, a few of which played out on the big screen.
Now You Has Jazz
Perhaps you’ve seen the 1956 MGM musical High Society, a high-gloss remake of The Philadelphia Story, which in turn was an adaptation of the Philip Barry play.
The movie version of The Philadelphia Story was directed by George Cukor, and featured Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart entangled in a classic remarriage plot.
High Society replaces them respectively with Grace Kelly, Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra, relocating the action from the Main Line to the mansions of Bellevue Avenue. Cole Porter composed the score, and the orchestrations were by Conrad Salinger and Nelson Riddle. The movie was a box office success, despite mixed reviews, and it holds up today as a minor classic.
What I’ve just left out in my capsule summary is the raison d’être for High Society, and probably the most interesting thing about it. The film is set against the backdrop of the Newport Jazz Festival, with which Crosby’s character, C.K. Dexter Haven, is somehow tangentially involved. (He’s a member of the Newport gentry who has been slumming it as a popular songwriter, a fact that Cole Porter probably found both irksome and droll.) The movie opens on Louis Armstrong and his All-Stars in the back of a tour bus, en route to one of the mansions on Bellevue Avenue, where they’ll be rehearsing. (Whether they’re also staying there is left a little vague, for reasons you can probably discern.)
Armstrong sings an expository opening number, “High Society Calypso,” to set up the plot. Then we see the band approaching the mansion, in the first of many class-based comic setups in the film. (Musician 1: “I can’t go in there!” Musician 2: “Why not?” Musician 1: “I don’t have my library card!”)
In one of the adjacent scenes, Crosby’s character thanks the matron of the house for allowing the musicians to rehearse there. “Don’t you know you might lose your listing in the Blue Book?” he teases her good-naturedly. “Jazz is very unchic.”
Now, the jazz trappings in High Society are more of a convenient pretext than an essential feature of the plot, despite a couple of swell duets. The film opened in mid-July of ’56, which was extraordinarily good timing. Less than two weeks earlier, Duke Ellington had given an https://youtu.be/hTonhINTeXQ" target="_blank">instantly legendary performance at that year’s Newport Jazz Festival, reviving his career with “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue” — a tenor saxophone feature for Paul Gonsalves, who electrified the crowd with an epic 27-chorus solo. That performance became a part of Ellington’s legend; a centerpiece of the best-selling album Ellington at Newport; and a major reason for his appearance, the following month, on the cover of Time magazine. Obviously, there was something vital and attractive about the notion of jazz at Newport. So while it includes not a frame of real festival footage, High Society was right on trend.
And to its credit, the film presents Louis Armstrong with due respect. He’s a sly commentator on the film’s shifting romantic calculus, often breaking the fourth wall with a folksy aside or clever jibe. And he stands on equal footing with Crosby during a musical set piece called “Now You Has Jazz,” featuring solos by every member of his All-Stars, singled out by name.
Armstrong at this point was a hugely popular entertainer with a growing filmography, and the movie doesn’t patronize him, or at least not much. So even in light of the obvious frivolity of High Society, it was a mainstream entertainment that took pains to present jazz in an honest light: upbeat and low-down, but also perfectly at home in even the most dignified of settings. It’s no small thing that Crosby’s character, who has our sympathies from his entrance onscreen, harbors so much admiration and collegiality with Armstrong and his band. He could be a spiritual stand-in for John Hammond, undermining the starchy aristocracy from within.
There’s certainly a parallel between the slangy familiarity Bing and Pops demonstrate in High Society and what we see during’s Armstrong’s knockout performance in Jazz on a Summer’s Day. Singing the Hoagy Carmichael classic “Old Rockin’ Chair” as a duet with trombonist Jack Teagarden, Pops pulls what Ralph Ellison would have called a trickster move. After Teagarden sings the line “Fetch me my gin, son, ‘fore I tan your hide,” he shoots back: “My hide’s already tan.” There’s been a great deal of recent scholarship about veiled social critique in the Armstrong canon, and I’d suggest that the plantation echoes of this particular song, in this particular setting, are trenchant and fully intentional.
As early as the very first Newport Jazz Festival, the presenters of the event aspired to foster a place for intellectual discussion as well as popular entertainment: there were afternoon panel discussions on subjects like “Jazz’s Place in American Culture,” and “The Jazz Dance,” and that perennial staple, “The Future of Jazz.”
Almost from the start, the festival was a magnet for leading black writers and cultural figures, like Ellison and poet Langston Hughes, who was briefly a member of the advisory board. Julian Bond, the civil rights activist, considered the Newport Jazz Festival a rite of summer for his collegiate peers in the late ‘50s. And as the historian John Gennari has noted, black newspapers like the New York Amsterdam News ran coverage of the festival “not just in the entertainment section but also in the social pages, where it exemplified the cultivated leisure of the black bourgeoisie.”
In a broader sense, jazz’s flirtation with Newport leisure and luxury, however provisional it was at the time, strengthened a popular perception of the music as something glamorous and moderne. Look at a selection of album covers from 1957, and you find jazz’s growing traction with the worlds of high fashion and Madison Avenue style.
By 1958, the festival was so thoroughly embraced by this taste-making demimonde that one of the afternoon panels was titled “The Editors’ Point of View.” It was a conversation among top American magazine editors — and I don’t mean the editors of jazz magazines. The panel included Harold Hayes of Esquire, Evelyn Harvey of Glamour and Leo Lerman of Mademoiselle.
I think it would be safe to assume that all of them were familiar with the work of Bert Stern.
Driest of the Dry
The image to the left is a 1955 print ad for Smirnoff vodka. The title of the campaign was “Driest of the Dry,” and it was Stern’s first professional assignment.
He came up with the idea while walking down Fifth Avenue with a martini glass full of water, and noticing the upside-down reflection of the Plaza Hotel. He traveled to Egypt to shoot the Great Pyramid of Giza, creating one of the emblematic commercial images of the age, and embarking on a legendary career.
Stern is most often remembered now for his portraits of Marilyn Monroe, especially the hauntingly intimate series for Vogue known as The Last Sitting, weeks before Monroe’s death in 1962. But he was busy all throughout this era, shooting magazine covers and commercial spreads, along with profile-like shots of stars like Elizabeth Taylor and Audrey Hepburn. A 2011 documentary called Bert Stern: Original Mad Man cast him in that fancifully reductive light, though there is of course some kernel of truth to the idea that he was always selling something.
While we’re talking film, Stanley Kubrick was an old pal of Stern’s; they met at LOOK magazine before the war, and purportedly bonded over “a mutual interest in beautiful women.”
When Kubrick was finishing up Lolita in 1962, he commissioned Stern to take some publicity stills for the movie. Without having seen the film, he brought the 13-year-old actress Sue Lyon and her mother out to Sag Harbor, where they found these heart-shaped sunglasses at a five-and-dime. The image, of course, is iconic, and it never appears in the film.
All of which is to say that Bert Stern was a maestro of style, someone whose visual instinct and formal vocabulary were highly attuned to the machinery of desire. He was not a jazz fan. In fact, he seems to have been completely out of touch with the design aesthetic of the music in the late ‘50s, all of those sleek and stylish album covers, the pop of a Reid Miles design. “My impression of jazz,” he once recalled, “was something downstairs in a dark room.”
Despite what must have been his positive associations with a photographic darkroom, that’s not what he’s talking about here. He’s effectively describing the iconographic signature that dominated jazz in photographs and on film during the 1940s and early ‘50s. As an emblematic example, I’d offer Herman Leonard’s most celebrated jazz image, a portrait of Dexter Gordon at the Royal Roost in 1948: the plume of smoke, the angles of his horn and his hat. A perfect distillation of postwar American cool.
Here’s another example: a still from The Sweet Smell of Success, a fantastically caustic film noir from ’57, starring Burt Lancaster as a coldblooded Broadway columnist and Tony Curtis as a sycophantic publicist. The image depicts drummer Chico Hamilton with his band, who briefly appear in the film. “Something downstairs in a dark room.” Sounds about right.
We can infer that Stern probably saw The Sweet Smell of Success, because when he started to put together Jazz on a Summer’s Day, the only real jazz musician he had heard of was Chico Hamilton. He went to see Hamilton and was so enthralled that he decided to give him pride of place in the film — “almost,” he said, “like a leading man in the movie.”
The genesis of the film couldn’t have been more larkish: Stern had a friend who knew Elaine Lorillard, and while visiting one day he had the idea that Newport could be a fine setting for a short. He had been in the motion picture division while serving in the Army in Korea, so he had a little experience shooting news stories with handheld cameras. Because he knew nothing about jazz, he went to Columbia Records and met with the producer and executive George Avakian, to ask about recording the festival.
At the time, all of the big record labels recorded their artists at Newport, partly because the immense popularity of Ellington’s album had imbued the phrase “At Newport” with a certain cachet. This particular year George Avakian made an arrangement to record all of the artists on the bill, to ensure some measure of consistency. He also told Stern which artists to film, making his calculations partly on the basis of likely clearance and approval.
The film is a musical delight, with a few moments you could rightly call iconic. Anita O’Day, in white gloves and a black sheath dress, scatting a storm through “Tea For Two.” That Armstrong/Teagarden duet, a vision of interracial collegiality. Dinah Washington wailing with the Terry Gibbs Quintet, and playfully horning in on Gibbs’ vibraphone solo. The abstract title sequence, a shot of light shimmering off the water, scored to the Jimmy Giuffre 3. Thelonious Monk in bamboo sunglasses, playing “Blue Monk” with Henry Grimes on bass and Roy Haynes on drums.
In fact, there’s such a tremendous bounty of great music in Jazz on a Summer’s Day that it seems ungallant to reflect on what might have been. But while we’re on the subject, let me just note that Miles Davis played the festival that year with his short-lived sextet, which featured Cannonball Adderley on alto saxophone, John Coltrane on tenor saxophone, Bill Evans on piano, Paul Chambers on bass and Jimmy Cobb on drums—the same personnel that would very shortly record Kind of Blue.
Sonny Rollins, the Saxophone Colossus, appeared just before Monk; Grimes and Haynes were the rhythm team in his trio. There were also sets by the Max Roach Quintet, the Randy Weston Trio and the Dave Brubeck Quartet. Ellington made his return. Stride piano master Willie “The Lion” Smith played an afternoon set. Joe Turner delivered a smashing show — and so did Ray Charles, thankfully rolling tape for a live album.
A Love Story
Stern has said that at some early point in the process, he had aspired to make something like a conventional feature film, with jazz and Newport as the backdrop. “It wasn’t a real script,” he said.
I thought we could create a love story, so I had this guy who was the writer, who was also an actor, and this girl who was very beautiful, that I was going with, and I thought they could be the subject of this love story. And I was going to do it improvisational, in the French genre. The mistake I made was that I rehearsed it and the rehearsal went great, but after that the passion that they had for each other was gone.
This does not, in short, describe the process of an experienced film crew. Stern also said that the first scene they shot involved a cat, and as soon as they started rolling, the cat bolted, throwing the production into limbo. Still, early marketing for the film touted a romantic angle; note the couple in the poster at left, not to mention the pull quote from Saturday Review. (“EMBARRASSINGLY INTIMATE.” Um, OK.)
Anyway, I’m fairly confident that the young woman in the yellow headscarf, below, was Stern’s then-girlfriend and would-be leading lady. Her few scenes in the film have a stagy quality — in one, she’s idly reading a copy of Camille, and in another she’s reacting to the feather in someone’s hat — and there’s some indication in a behind-the-scenes featurette that she was the actress he described.
By comparison, the woman in the red sweater and straw hat was a genuine discovery: her long, fidgety take appears early in the film, as a sort of impertinent comment on the windbaggery of Willis Conover, the festival emcee. I believe this yawn arrives just as he’s talking about Thelonious Monk’s special affinity for spiking his pianism with the intimation of quarter tones. (While researching this paper, I learned that this happens to be Patricia Bosworth, a biographer of Montgomery Clift, Marlon Brando and Diane Arbus. She’s also a former actor, though I don’t think she was acting here.)
As we all know, great art so often arises out of limitations of one sort or another. In Stern’s case, he had a thorough lack of knowledge about jazz, bordering on active disinterest. But he also had the Avakians — George and his brother Aram, who was deeply involved in both the filming and editing of Jazz on a Summer’s Day. There were five cameras on the scene, all handheld, and Aram Avakian served as an on-the-fly D.P., calling audibles and setting up coverage. (He also later spent the better part of a year editing the 80,000 feet of film they’d shot, and painstakingly syncing the images to the sound.)
Several of Stern’s signature innovations in the film also came partly out of a workaround. When he first scoped out the location of the Newport Jazz Festival, he was bitterly disappointed: at the time, it took place in Freebody Park, a municipal park in a lot behind the high school. Nothing glamorous about it. In fact, he briefly decided to scrap the project. “There was nothing really to shoot that interested me,” he explained.
His eventual solution was to do away with almost anything resembling a wide shot, so that you rarely get an accurate read on the physical dimensions of the site. Instead, using the same long lenses he favored in his still photography, he shot the action in tight closeup, often holding for an unusually long take, so that the viewer feels not only present in the moment but intimately so: I’m struck by how much these shots remind me of the enormous video screens you now see at outdoor pop festivals, so that the tiny speck onstage in the distance can also register as the artist you’ve paid handsomely to see.
The composition of these images is rarely less than intriguing, which reflects Stern’s own assessment of the film: “It’s like moving still pictures with music,” he said. “It’s an unusual film because it’s like still photography.”
During many of the night scenes, Stern shot into the stage lights, another evocative technique he’d adapted from his photographic practice, and something that hadn’t at all been common practice in documentary films, until this one. As he put it, he was looking for any way to hide what he saw as the mundane tackiness of the setting — to conjure a little glamour.
And here is where some of the stranger magic of the film takes shape, because all throughout Jazz on a Summer’s Day, the camera seems every bit as interested in watching the watchers—capturing audience members in their various states of inattention or rapture, looking rumpled or resplendent, aware or unaware.
This wasn’t the norm for a concert film, and it really still isn’t, though you can certainly point to examples that seem to echo this one.
The night shots here are especially striking, and it’s worth noting that Stern had gamed the system a bit, making arrangements with the festival to light the event himself, because the conventional rig was too dark for his purposes. We see young faces expressing childlike wonder, bodies dancing with a loose-limbed abandon.
It’s no coincidence that so many of these sequences coincide with the more popular acts on the bill.
I’m referring mainly to Chuck Berry, whose appearance on the bill was a bit controversial among jazz partisans. Like Big Maybelle, who also appears in the film, Berry was backed by the Newport Blues Band, a special assemblage of musicians like Teagarden, saxophonist Buddy Tate and drummer Jo Jones.
The inclusion of Berry and Maybelle was largely the work of John Hammond, who had strenuously argued the case. In that sense, Jazz on a Summer’s Day can be understood not only as a cornerstone jazz film but also an accidental entry in the early rock ’n’ roll filmography. (Rock Around the Clock had come out just a couple of years earlier, and Elvis was four movies into his Hollywood career.)
The lyrics to “Sweet Little Sixteen,” which Berry sings in the film, sketch a bifurcated picture of night and day, wildness and obedience, sexual adventure and prim restraint. The groupie in the song has “got the grown-up blues / Tight dresses and lipstick / Sportin’ high-heeled shoes.” But she’ll be back in class tomorrow morning, keeping up appearances of innocence and propriety.
There’s a link between this carnal duality and Stern’s presentation of music in the film — indeed, it’s the core idea of the film, just as it’s the animating tension of most early coverage of the festival. Right after the rollicking carnality of “Sweet Sixteen,” we get the regal ministrations of Mahalia; Saturday night into Sunday morning.
Speaking of parties, we haven’t yet touched on the extramusical footage in the film, some of which has aged less gracefully than the music. Stern gave up on his scripted aspirations, but he held on to the idea that Jazz on a Summer’s Day needed the occasional break from the concert-and-audience model.
The worst of his cutaways involve house parties shot not during the festival or even in Newport but rather on Long Island, weeks later. There’s an air of ebullient fakery to these scenes, and they may have born some responsibility for what happened at the festival in 1960, when a horde of young revelers in downtown Newport — not festival-goers, but college types blowing off steam — riotously clashed with the local police.
But then there are other cutaway shots that play out differently. We see Chico Hamilton and his band rehearsing in a living room: he’s bare-chested, workmanlike but intensely serious, in tune with the coloristic drama of his music. As Stern put it, almost like a leading man. I can’t say how authentic the moment is as rehearsal footage, but it feels truthful, or at least like something other than a falsehood. It also underscores a subtext of the film, the notion that jazz is in fact a serious discipline. We get another form of this legitimizing twitch when we see one of Hamilton’s sidemen, Nathan Gershman, practicing a Bach cello suite.
Finally, another facet of this kaleidoscope of footage involves two locomotive set pieces. One centers on footage from the America’s Cup trials, held in Newport harbor; Stern shot the sailboats with an Arriflex 35, while hanging out of a Piper Cub airplane. And these images, which form part of the allure of the film, underscore the notion that jazz is something windborne, wide-open and free — the antithesis of the dark cavern you reach by tripping down a flight of stairs.
The other series of shots features a clean-cut young Dixieland band tootling around Newport in a convertible jalopy, or jamming in a town square, or on a rocky shore. The band had a name, Eli’s Chosen Six, and an affiliation, with Yale University: the Eli in the name was a nod to Elihu Yale, the school’s mercantile namesake.
There’s something maybe a little on-the-nose about a recurring role for an Ivy League trad-jazz crew, frolicking in the summer playground of the American elite. But one scene near the beginning of the film has a nice resonance: Eli’s Chosen Six is negotiating a beachside curve in the jalopy when a sports coupe comes flying past, tires screeching. It’s a handy shorthand for the cultural and social changes already underway in Eisenhower’s America, and captured so precisely by Stern’s watchful eye.
I don’t mean to be utopian or glib: to the extent that Jazz on a Summer’s Day was a tonic for the standard grim syntax of jazz onscreen—or a vision of some hopeful, integrated future— we know it was also an exceptional outlier, a document in many ways unrepeatable and unique.
Still, some of what the film augured has come to pass. Jazz can still evoke dark shadows and brooding demons, but that’s hardly the fallback presumption now. The music now struggles for relevance, whereas in 1958 it was fighting for respect.
The Newport Jazz Festival still takes place each summer, and we can only hope it proceeds as planned this year. Scheduled headliners include Norah Jones, Wynton Marsalis, Charles Lloyd and Diana Krall. And in the same way that any lived experience can lodge in the mind, I sometimes catch myself making an almost subliminal comparison between the summer affairs of today and the one evoked in the film.
The festival now occupies a site as spectacular as any Stern could have desired: Fort Adams State Park, a craggy civil war fortification that juts into Narragansett Bay. Sailboats and rowboats and small yachts often drop anchor just off shore, and every year I witness another musician marveling at the view from the stage.
But in some respects it’s a testament to Stern’s visionary execution that there hasn’t been another Jazz on a Summer’s Day — a captivating, feature-length film deftly spun out of Newport festival footage. (There are, of course, plenty of standalone concert videos, including this one, courtesy of Jazz Night in America.)
What matters is that the influence of the film is as present as the music itself — just as difficult to isolate, as impossible to ignore, and ultimately as ageless in its appeal.