#326) Jazz on a Summer’s Day (1960)

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#326) Jazz on a Summer’s Day (1960)

OR “Wake Up Little Rhody”

Directed by Aram Avakian and Bert Stern

Written by Albert D’Annibale and Arnold Perl

Class of 1999

The Plot: Filmmakers Aram Avakian and Bert Stern covered four days of the Newport Jazz Festival in Newport, Rhode Island in July 1958. Every style of jazz from bebop to Dixieland is highlighted, intercut with footage from the recent America’s Cup races. On the roster are performances by the Jimmy Giuffre 3, the Thelonious Monk Trio, Sonny Stitt and Sal Salvador, Anita O’Day, George Shearing, Dinah Washington, the Gerry Mulligan Quartet with Art Farmer, Big Maybelle, Chuck Berry, the Chico Hamilton Quintet, Louis Armstrong and his All-Stars, and Mahalia Jackson.

Why It Matters: As with many of the early NFR entries, the official description for “Jazz on a Summer’s Day” is a brief synopsis of the film and a rundown of the talent roster.

But Does It Really?: I’m always down to support a documentary that covers a specific culture, especially if that culture has an awesome soundtrack. Plus it’s great to see footage of the likes of Armstrong and Jackson, “Jazz” being one of the rare opportunities to see what these greats were like live. “Jazz on a Summer’s Day” is another film that passes all three NFR criteria for me: culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant.

Everybody Gets One: Director Bert Stern was primarily a photographer, most famously for one of Marilyn Monroe’s final photo shoots in 1962.  Co-Director Aram Avakian was also a photographer, known for his photos of the jazz recording sessions produced by his brother George Avakian. “Jazz on a Summer’s Day” was the first directorial effort for both Stern and Avakian, with Avakian also editing the picture. This is also the only NFR entry for a majority of the performers, most notably Louis Armstrong. Though performing since the ‘20s, Armstrong didn’t gain popularity until the jazz revival of the early ‘40s. His large mouth earned him the nickname “Satchel Mouth”, later shortened to the more familiar “Satchmo”.

Seriously, Oscars?: “Jazz” did not receive a nomination for Best Documentary. Weirdly, there were only two nominees in the category that year, the winner being something called “The Horse with the Flying Tail”.

Other notes

  • The 1958 Newport Jazz Festival took place from Thursday July 3rd to Sunday July 6th. This film is primarily from the sets on the 5th and 6th. As best I can tell, the America’s Cup race wasn’t until that September.
  • Oh no, these credits lead me to believe I’m watching another “Staring at Water” movie! Not again!
  • I’ll argue that “documentary” is a misleading label for this movie. Yes, it is reportage of an event, but like jazz itself, the film doesn’t really adhere to structure or form. There’s plenty of footage of the performances, intercut with the audience and other nearby sights. Not so much a documentary as it is an atmospheric tone poem.
  • In the time of do-wop and early rock ‘n’ roll, jazz was still considered underground and experimental. A public showcasing for jazz was still pretty progressive in 1958, as was a desegregated event with no questions asked.
  • I don’t know what it is, but watching all this footage of boats with Thelonious Monk playing in the background just feels right.
  • Anita O’Day is on hand representing the West Coast style of jazz. Her disciplined scat style is quite impressive, even more so when she revealed years later that she was most likely high on heroin during that performance.
  • Pianist George Shearing may be Peter Sellers’ finest character work ever.
  • Dinah Washington is best remembered for her hit single “What a Diff’rence a Day Makes”. Here she sings “All of Me”, and it’s great watching her kill at something more upbeat. Plus there’s a jazz xylophonist! What’s not to love?
  • Some audience members are really digging this, which begs the question: are we sure that’s just cigarette smoke?
  • Like Dinah Washington, Big Maybelle is also best remembered for a slower crossover single (“Candy”), but gets to cut loose here with the upbeat “I Ain’t Mad At You”.
  • For those of you paying attention, that’s two different NFR entries that include Chuck Berry performing “Sweet Little Sixteen”. You can never have too much of a good thing.
  • That being said, does Chuck Berry’s rock ‘n’ roll/rhythm and blues sound really qualify as jazz?
  • Louis Armstrong’s appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival is a little perplexing, seeing as how he didn’t consider the bebop sound of the younger jazz musicians real music. But Armstrong did enjoy performing (doing as many as 300 shows per year) and as they say, a gig’s a gig. Not surprisingly, his set is composed of older standards like “Up the Lazy River”.
  • I enjoyed this movie’s soundtrack, but it was Mahalia Jackson’s take on “Didn’t It Rain” that got my toes tapping.
  • Apparently the Saturday night set at the festival went so long Mahalia Jackson didn’t get to the stage until it was technically Sunday morning. Appropriately enough, the film concludes with her somber, stirring rendition of “The Lord’s Prayer”.
  • Also playing at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival was a young up-and-comer named Ray Charles. Call it shortsightedness, but Charles is nowhere to be seen in “Jazz”. Charles’ set was, however, recorded by Atlantic Recording, and released as an album four months after the festival.

Legacy

  • Bert Stern never directed another film after “Jazz”, returning to his photography, while Aram Avakian directed a handful of credits, including the cult film “End of the Road”.
  • Co-writer Arnold Perl went on to write and direct the documentary “Malcolm X”, posthumously released in 1972. Spike Lee would use this film’s screenplay as the basis for his own “Malcolm X”.
  • We’ll see more of Thelonious Monk on the Registry in the 1988 documentary “Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser”.
  • After moving to New York in 1972, the Newport Jazz Festival returned to Rhode Island in the ‘80s, and has played every summer ever since.

Listen to This: Louis Armstrong is represented by several National Recording Registry entries, notably his Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings from 1925 to 1928, and his 1956 cover of “Mack the Knife”. Mahalia Jackson can be heard in her 1948 recording of “Move On Up a Little Higher”. Of the remaining performers, the Registry includes Chuck Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven”, Thelonious Monk’s “Brilliant Corners” album, and The Gerry Mulligan Quartet’s “My Funny Valentine” (featuring Chet Baker).

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