Blu-ray Review: Jazz on a Summer's Day | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Monday, March 8th, 2021  

Jazz on a Summer’s Day

Studio: Kino Lorber

Feb 22, 2021 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

The late 1950s was a transitional time for jazz. Ornette Coleman was cooking up "The New Thing", but it wasn't fully out of the oven; the existence of "trad jazz" was still an acknowledgement of roots more than it was a refuge for backwards dorks in straw boater hats. There were multiple curious offshoots of the form which would not be afforded a chance to flower in the decade to come, steamrolled as they were by the birth of The Cool, the Blue Note roster's steadfast advancement of soul jazz, and the fire of free improv.

Jazz on a Summer's Day, Bert Stern's eternal document of the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, captures this moment of thrilling uncertainty. It's a joy to watch to this day, and this 4K restoration by IndieColllect does it ample justice: the sound is crisp, the images sometimes shockingly intimate. Much has been made of D.A. Pennebaker's work in this mode with the later Monterey Pop, but one could easily argue that Pennebaker cribbed a lot from Stern's work here. The spirit, though, is different: Monterey Pop captured the apex of a white-hot light that burned out as its subjects became cokeheads, then cynics, then yuppies, then dittoheads, then Trump supporters. Jazz on a Summer's Day, instead, lends its eye to the eternal flame of true believers, simply affording us the privilege of sitting by that fire for a while.

Stern was not a jazz cat himself, and his preconceptions about the culture (mostly informed by its use in seedy films noir) color Jazz on a Summer's Day in ways that would be off-putting were they not so charming. Stern is fascinated by Newport's sunny tourist resort milieu and the culture clash it implies; whether this amounts to anything is in the eye of the beholder, but the crowd certainly doesn't seem to think anything weird is going on by having a jazz festival in their petit bourgeois vacation spot. In fact, Newport's audience is, on its face, one of the most contentedly diverse crowds you'll ever see in a film from this era. The tensions may be lurking just under the surface, but here the festival comes off as an enlightened oasis.

The music, too, is diverse in scope. The film leads with the Jimmy Giuffre 3's singular drummerless tangle 'The Train And The River', a bold move which pries the mind open for what's to come. Once that tone is set, it's easier to view all the music as part of a piece: Thelonious Monk's clever dissonances fit just fine with Anita O'Day's turbo scat, and the chamber jazz of Chico Hamilton (with Eric Dolphy on flute!) sits comfortably with Big Maybelle's R&B stomp and holler. The inclusion of Maybelle and Chuck Berry marks Jazz on a Summer's Day  as one of the earliest films to capture live rock & roll, albeit with a somewhat awkward jazzbo backing. Closing both festival and film with a Sunday morning benediction by legendary gospel singer Mahalia Jackson imbues the proceedings with the best kind of spiritual air; one wonders if Monterey Pop's choice to linger on a fervent, rapturous Ravi Shankar performance at its climax was inspired by Stern's choice here, marked differences in religious details notwithstanding.

Jazz On A Summer's Day is essential for any fan of this era in jazz, but it is also a film with the ability to open the music up to newcomers, or even expand the parameters of those who think they're already "with it" (I was personally prepared to check out for O'Day's performance, only to be hypnotized by her poise and control). The well of the music is deep as ever, and if one is looking for an entry point, Jazz On A Summer's Day is still among the more inviting ways in.



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