By Bliss Bowen
Still healing from WWII and the Korean War and enjoying its relatively new status as a global superpower, America was on the cusp of seismic change at the time of the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival in Rhode Island, the subject of “Jazz on a Summer’s Day.” The landmark 1959 film, which captures an integrated cast of popular jazz and blues entertainers in peak form before a well-heeled, primarily white audience, was added to the National Film Registry in 1999 and is now being reissued after a “4K restoration from the original camera negative.”
It’s worth recalling the times in which those concerts occurred. Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders had met with President Dwight Eisenhower just weeks before the early July festival; Jim Crow was alive and well and in May, Ernest Green had become the first African American student to graduate from Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas. The United States was conducting atmospheric nuclear tests in the Pacific.
Nina Simone had released her first album, “Little Girl Blue,” while Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “South Pacific” soundtrack and Dick Dale’s “Let’s Go Trippin’” were camped out on the pop charts. By the time of the festival, Elvis Presley was garnering good reviews for his just-opened movie “King Creole.” But in Newport, discerning music aficionados were tuned in to Louis Armstrong, Chuck Berry, Big Maybelle, Chico Hamilton, Mahalia Jackson, Thelonious Monk, Gerry Mulligan, Anita O’Day, Sonny Stitt, Dinah Washington. The optimism on audience faces establishes the film’s tone as much as the film’s noteworthy music.
Director Bert Stern’s fashion-trained eye is drawn to the handsomely attired audience almost as much as the equally sharp-dressed performers, in scenes that offer layered subliminal commentary. Narrative voiceovers are scarce; the music and the crowd scenes speak for themselves. In coronavirus-plagued 2020, when the electric connections forged at live concerts feel impossibly remote, the rapport depicted in those scenes is one of the film’s more bittersweet attractions.
When Thelonious Monk takes the stage to perform “Blue Monk,” a rarely heard announcer describes him as “one of the complete originals of music, a man who lives his music, a man who thinks his music.” Monk was enjoying hard-earned career acclaim, having just recorded “Mulligan Meets Monk” and “Brilliant Corners” in ’57 and been named Best Jazz Pianist by the prestigious Down Beat Critics Poll in ’57 and ’58. But neither the announcer nor the expectant audience seem entirely sure what to expect, nor does the cinematographer; during most of the time Monk plays, the camera is focused on yachts racing in the ocean nearby, which are scenic but disconnected from jazz and its roots.
That disrespect is not suffered by Anita O’Day, dressed as though for a Hamptons garden party, who gets heads bobbing (and babies bouncing) in time with her note-perfect breeze through “Tea for Two.” More concertgoers are seen dancing and mouthing lyrics to Dinah Washington’s crisply phrased “All of Me,” a clearly anticipated nighttime performance that shows the legendary diva laughing and wielding mallets alongside her vibraphonist. Big Maybelle, meanwhile, dispenses with jazz decorum and nearly burns through the screen with her dynamic performance of “Ain’t Mad at You.”
One of the most inspired moments occurs during Chuck Berry’s nighttime romp through “Sweet Little Sixteen” with the Newport Blues Band: a solo by jazz clarinetist Rudy Rutherford that matches Berry’s raw rock brio note for note. Berry’s booking was controversial at the time, and his presence seemed designed to illustrate jazz’s broad reach; audience members shown dancing are notably younger.
Another highlight occurs during Louis Armstrong’s energetic turn onstage, as he duets vocally and instrumentally with friend and longtime trombonist Jack Teagarden on “Old Rockin’ Chair.” But while Armstrong may have been the unquestioned headliner, it’s gospel icon Mahalia Jackson’s transcendent delivery of “The Lord’s Prayer” that casts a hushed spell across the audience, and inspires enraptured applause.
The full lineup of that year’s Newport Jazz Festival also included Ray Charles, Miles Davis (backed by, among others, John Coltrane), Duke Ellington, Max Roach, and Mary Lou Williams. For unexplained reasons their performances did not make the final cut, perhaps due to directorial disinterest in emerging modern jazz or because of contractual conflicts. (Ellington’s “Newport 1958” album was released later that year by Mosaic, for instance, and Davis, who had just recorded the atmospheric soundtrack to Louis Malle’s “Lift to the Scaffold,” may well have been conceptualizing his watershed 1959 recording “Kind of Blue.”) Despite their regrettable absence, “Jazz on a Summer’s Day” still offers a feast of music and concert moments to savor until live festivals are once again a summertime reality.
“Jazz on a Summer’s Day” can be viewed at Laemmle’s Virtual Cinema: laemmle.com/pages/laemmles-virtual-cinema.