Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
The restoration of the classic concert film Jazz on a Summer’s Day is now making the rounds, and it can be watched in a way that will benefit a movie theater of your choice. The Grand Illusion, for instance.
If you’re into jazz as a subject—fiction films, concerts, documentary profiles—Scarecrow has more titles than you could watch in the course of a long weekend in Newport. Check out the selection and rent accordingly. In the meantime, a review of the film.
Jazz on a Summer’s Day
You will be knocked out by the soundtrack, of course, which is delightful. The music in the 1959 documentary Jazz on a Summer’s Day, a chronicle of the ’58 Newport Jazz Festival, comes from a group of the very best players alive then. For two very powerful reasons, though, the visual experience of this newly restored film might prove intoxicating.
One reason is that Jazz on a Summer’s Day is being re-released directly in the teeth of the Covid-19 pandemic, and so the many scenes of people gathering, whether crowded in the seats at the outdoor concert venue or goofing on a beach nearby (or, in one atmospheric sequence, partying indoors at what looks like a beatnik-by-way-of-the-yacht-club shindig) are inescapably poignant. Crowd shots can sometimes be the bane of concert films, but not this one; the joy of the music gets reflected back into the audience and then again on us.
The other visual aspect that triggers an amazingly strong sense memory is the sight of film itself. I mean film-film, as opposed to digital. I’m not high-hatting digital photography, which can be very evocative and quite suited to shooting live music. But sweet Georgia Brown, the look of this movie: the rich saturated colors, the dense texture of bodies, the play of stage lights on many different shades of skin. There’s so much warmth in the film image it creates a depth that perfectly suits the density of the music.
So, yes, the music: The weekend is anchored by Louis Armstrong and Mahalia Jackson, who do their things most admirably (Armstrong was already well into “playing” Louie Armstrong by this point, natch, but his royal powers cannot be denied). Before they arrive late in the proceedings, there’s a crowded roster of heavy-hitters getting one or two songs apiece: tunes by Anita O’Day and Dinah Washington, too-brief appearances by Thelonious Monk and Gerry Mulligan, groovy things from Chico Hamilton, Sonny Stitt, George Shearing. In the middle comes Chuck Berry, looking very young indeed, doing “Sweet Little Sixteen” and maybe turning a few of the jazz purists into momentary believers in rock and roll.
Director Bert Stern and editor Aram Avakian stray over to the America’s Cup sailing event for a while, which also proves a rapturous subject for contemplation. Stern was a celebrated photographer, which explains the movie’s great eye. (A shot during the credits sequence, of light and color rippling off the surface of water, is the kind of thing that became a cliché in documentaries and elsewhere during the 60s—but here looks absolutely voluptuous.) Some of the lighting could’ve come straight out of Life magazine from the era, and the faces in the crowd at night are even more photogenic and haunting than they are during the day. Even if a few of the jazz-heads look like they’re auditioning for parts in Roger Corman’s beat comedy A Bucket of Blood, it’s impossible to find a bad or uninteresting person on screen here; maybe people just looked cooler then, but the movie’s selective eye is keen. I don’t know how anybody could have seen the film in 1959 and not been seized by the impulse to throw away their obligation to a square life and split immediately to the nearest basement jazz club. Maybe it will have a similar effect on audiences today—if only we could split.
Robert Horton is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.