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VIEW FROM THE INSIDE: Remembering Jazz on a Summer's Day

Updated: May 7, 2019

By Randy Freedman

Set against the elegant and picturesque backdrop of Newport, RI at the height of its summer season, the film Jazz On A Summer's Day both remembers and celebrates the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival. This summer music festival, just a few years after its inception in 1954, was well on its way to achieving national iconic status.

Director (fashion photographer) Bert Stern, experienced film editor and camera coordinator Aram Avakian, and his brother and music director, George Avakian, a Columbia Records executive (who selected and acquired the right to songs and artists) have delivered a classic. Careful planning, time and budget management, circumstance, and a large dollop of good fortune have all combined to make Jazz On A Summer’s Day unique and unrepeatable. The Chicago Reader calls it "Probably the best full-length feature film about jazz ever made."

Columbia 1958

“No one can ever do it better,” film critic Donald Levit was told by Oscar-winning director Spike Lee. The combination of intercutting the musical numbers with footage of Newport Harbor, Narragansett Bay, and the white-sailed yachts of the 1958 America's Cup time trials will forever remain unique. Ground-level as well as aerial cinematography was used to incorporate the yachts to the film’s Newport backgrounds and festival coverage with stunning effect. "The movie is a photography film, the story was built in," said Stern.

After reviewing what was reportedly more than 100,000 feet of exposed negative color stock, Stern realized he was lacking audience shots. So in his studio, Stern set up chairs and benches over fake grass, and invited jazz critic Martin Williams and others to watch a rough cut there and filmed their reactions. The results for the film were memorable: thematic close ups of both the audience and performers during musical numbers, some actual, some simulated. In fact, Stern's cinematography seemed to foreshadow the later work of popular Italian director Sergio Leone on his so-called "spaghetti westerns" during the 1960s and his emphasis on long, slow, close ups of faces and expressions. “There is not a moment that, freeze framed, would not be an absolutely stunning still picture,” the film critic Judith Crist once said of the film. Jazz On A Summer’s Day has served as a virtual blueprint for all later concert films in all musical genres to follow.

While the music is playing, in a variety of rhythms and styles, the screen is presenting a virtual photo album of Newport at festival time. "Documentary" is perhaps not the right word to suggest the diverse elements that went into the making of this eighty-five minute film. A more rigid structure might better justify the use of that term on another film. Personally, I think of Jazz On A Summer's Day as an impression: a compilation of shots and scenes that convey an atmosphere of leisure and enjoyment against the background of jazz.

Newport is a city widely regarded as a summer vacation destination throughout the

Eastern Seaboard of the USA. Its yacht-filled harbor hosted the America’s Cup Race, a

renowned annual sailing regatta, for many years. The America's Cup is (literally) a trophy awarded to the winner of the final match race between two sailing yachts. Columbia was

the successful defender of the 1958 America's Cup for the New York Yacht Club, besting the British challenger Sceptre.

The Newport Jazz Festival is held every summer. Wealthy socialites Elaine and Louis

Lorillard established the festival in 1954, and financed it for many years. They hired

promotor/producer George Wein to organize the festival, operate it, and bring jazz to

Rhode Island. Originally, the festival was held at the Newport Casino, which was a facility

built in the late 1800s intended as an exclusive resort for wealthy Newport summer

residents. However, by the mid 1950s the festival needed to find a new venue. The

Newport Casino would not again host the festival because its lawn and other facilities did

not stand up well to the everyday wear and tear of such a large event and was in need of

renovation. Workshops and receptions were moved to Belcourt (a large nearby estate)

and the larger musical performances to Freebody Park, a sports arena near the casino.

Some Newport residents were opposed to the festival.

Jazz appreciation was not common within the established upper-class community, and the festival brought crowds of younger music fans to Newport. Many attendees were students who, in the absence of sufficient, reasonably priced lodging, slept outdoors wherever they could, with or without tents. Newport was at first not accustomed to this. Both foot and motor traffic gridlock near the downtown venue were legitimate concerns. Moreover, many of the musicians and their fans were African American. Racist attitudes were probably a factor in some residents, opposition to the festival, as they were not uncommon across the country at that time.

The list of list of talent that appeared in Jazz On A Summer's Day includes many of the top performers of 1958, such as Jimmy Giuffre, Bob Brookmeyer, Jim Hall, Thelonious Monk, Henry Grimes, Roy Haynes, Sonny Stitt, Sal Salvado, Anita O'Day, George Shearing, Dinah Washington, Gerry Mulligan, Art Farmer, Big Maybelle, Chuck Berry, Chico Hamilton, Louis Armstrong, Trummy Young, Danny Barcelona, Jack Teagarden, and Mahalia Jackson.

Top musical stars who appeared in Newport at the festival, yet are notably absent from the film would include Ray Charles, Marian McPartland, John Coltrane, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, and Dave Brubeck. Stern would later argue that budget, scheduling, and film rights considerations all played a part in determining which artists were used in the film or not.

Since I have undertaken the writing of this article, I am sometimes asked who do I feel gave the most outstanding performance in Jazz On A Summer's Day. As difficult as it is to choose between so many great talents and great performances, my answer is always Anita O'Day.

Vocalist Anita O’Day was battling drug addiction. Many of her fans might be shocked to learn that at this time O'Day had already served several months in prison on heroin charges. Nevertheless, her looks, stylish dress, and outstanding performance is (at least in my mind) the biggest highlight of Jazz On A Summer's Day. O'Day describes her experiences in her autobiography, High Times, Hard Times:

Today there are jazz festivals all over the place, and half the performers aren’t really jazz musicians. In those days, Newport was probably the only great one. When you appeared there, you were among your peers...I was scheduled for 5 o’clock in the afternoon and I asked myself what to wear. 'It’s teatime', I told the Italian lady who ran a dress shop in Greenwich Village. She brought out this black dress, trimmed with white. We both knew it was right, but I asked what I could wear on my head. She went into the backroom and came out with a black cartwheel, trimmed with white feathers. Both went with my see-through, plastic pumps and for a fun touch I added short white gloves.

Unbeknownst to me, Bert Stern, a famous advertising and fashion photographer, was there with a camera crew...It had rained, and if you watch closely you can see me scrape the mud off my shoe as I start up the first step toward the me this was just a swinging gig, not a turning point in my career. Performing in the afternoon was a bonus, because I could see the audience. All I knew was that I began working to a rather apathetic audience, but they responded quickly and by the end of the set, I really had them…

In those days we’d just begun doing “Tea for Two” (Youmans and Caesar) as a fast tune, and it was as fresh to us as to the audience. There was a big reaction, a lot of applause. In a club I’d have given more, but at a festival you take your bow and get out of the way so they can bring on things for the next group...It seems to me there’s no better example of not knowing when Lady Luck is going to touch you on the shoulder than this Newport gig...I didn’t have much faith in the commercial appeal of a documentary called Jazz on a Summer’s Day. In fact, I could have bought a full share for $200 and passed it up...Then suddenly, I began hearing from everybody about the picture, and especially about my two spots, “Sweet Georgia Brown” (Bernie, Pinkard, and Casey) and “Tea for Two.” Newsweek ran a lovely photo of me along with a rave review. The New York Times reported, and I quote, 'Anita O’Day, making mincemeat of 'Sweet Georgia Brown’ and 'Tea for Two’ is as vivid and insinuating as is Mahalia Jackson booming ‘The Lord’s Prayer' (traditional)... Metronome called me 'the festival’s outstanding act.' Esquire said 'I was the hit.' 

The moviegoing public who had only heard my records, or read about my problems, got a good look at me, and for the first time they had an image to go with the sound. I’ve thought about it a lot and I’ve concluded that the fact I looked so together, after all the horrendous things they’d read about me going through, caught their imaginations. If there is a legend, as writers keep insisting, I think it began with Jazz on a Summer’s Day."

As a child in the 1960s I remember going with my parents to the Old Orchard Shopping Center in Skokie to listen to pianist George Shearing and his quintet play in the then-outdoor mall's summer concert series. Shearing played "Rondo" (Federico) from his Latin Lace album in Jazz On A Summer’s Day.

One revealing element of the festival, later documented by Stern, is that Louis Armstrong was still its top-dollar centerpiece. Stern says his appearance in the movie ate up $25,000 of its $115,000 budget. Armstrong is shown playing “Lazy River,” (Carmichael /Arodin) “Tiger Rag,” (Edwards, LaRocca, and Shields) and “Saints," (Purvis/Black) and Teagarden joins him for their classic duet on “Rockin’ Chair” (Carmichael). 

Other highlights include the film capturing vocalist Dinah Washington, so excited and happy, that she joins bandleader Terry Gibbs, with a couple of mallets, for an impromptu xylophone solo on “All Of Me” (Marks/Simon). Another highlight is saxophonist Sonny Stitt and guitarist Sal Salvador playing Stitt’s “Blues Up and Down” (Stitt/Almond) at breakneck tempo. Another is saxophonist Gerry Mulligan’s great quartet with trumpeter Art Farmer playing “Blueport” (Mulligan/Hodges), and the first widely seen footage of two very different icons: saxophonist Eric Dolphy, who’s there with drummer Chico Hamilton’s Quintet, and vocalist Mahalia Jackson, who’s singing “Everybody’s Talkin’ ‘Bout Heaven” (traditional a cappella), “Didn’t It Rain?” (Tharp/Knight), and “The Lord’s Prayer.” Jackson was at the festival to sing “Come Sunday" (Kennedy/Ellington) with the Duke Ellington Orchestra, but neither Ellington nor Davis were included in the film. Their sets, however, were later released on Columbia LPs.

This movie is hip and artful, but it is more than just a straightforward video of a concert. The viewers are absolutely made to feel that we are actually there, in Newport, on a sunny Saturday afternoon and evening. While we listen, we see the rapt or distracted concertgoers, the ocean and the sailboats, and the parties on the margins. The musicians are all in their prime. They are photographed and recorded gorgeously. It may not be as good as actually having been there in 1958, but the film comes closer to recreating the whole experience than we might have otherwise thought possible. Thank you, Mr. Stern.

Chicago freelance writer Randy Freedman is a jazz connoisseur, photographer, food critic, humorist, and devoted music fan. He is a regular contributor to Chicago Jazz Magazine.

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