JJ 07/60: Jazz On A Summer’s Day

A review by J. S. Shipman, first published in Jazz Journal July 1960

He’s seen Citizen Kane, and lets you know it: Sweatdripping closeups, shots from odd angles, shots right into the floodlights, shots in pitiless sunlight, shots in almost total darkness – echt Welles-Toland

Jazz On A Summer’s Day is, in parts, a very disturbing film. Over half the footage, I would guess, consists of shots of musicians playing at concerts of the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival and most of the sound track was recorded at the same concerts. Of the remaining footage, a good deal is of the audience. The rest is more or less typical Newport Jazz Festival scenery: the Chico Hamilton Quintet in informal rehearsal, the Jamestown Ferry, a frantic beer party that establishes Newport as July’s answer to Fort Lauderdale, the public beach, Eli’s Chosen Six riding around the streets, the boats in the bay – it’s the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival alright. And yet it isn’t. I was there, I remember the music, I recognize the faces—but it’s not always the same festival I was at.

The opening episode centres around the Jimmy Giuffre Three’s playing of The Train And The River.

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I heard that very performance, and I never thought it was anything more than a pleasant conceit – phoney cool folksiness. As it came through in the film, The Train And The River was a powerful piece of music. It may be just be that I finally caught up with what was there all along, or it may be, as I prefer to believe, The Magic of the Movies. First off the sound comes at you from all sides (at least it did in the small theatre I was in), instead of evaporating in the wide-open spaces of Freebody Park. Then there was the thematic shot in a static frame (like a pre-Griffith film) of Giuffre’s and Bob Brookmeyer’s heads and torsos, Giuffre jack-in-the-boxing in front of the rock-solid Brookmeyer, implacable behind his dark shades. The cinematic device here was a change of focus, so that first Giuffre would be clear and Brookmeyer blurred, then a twist of the lens smeared out Giuffre and brought in Brookmeyer, monumentally sharp. You look at Brookmeyer on the screen playing trombone like a good fielder, one-hand, and you know there is no arguing with his music. Watching music being played is not the same as listening to a record of the performance (what makes a critic great is the ability to make a statement like that sound like the biggest piece of news since Mount Sinai); this part of Jazz On A Summer’s Day is just a different order of experience to the mere event itself.

But if this part of the film multiplies experience, the way “pot” is supposed to, others are curiously disembodied, even antiseptic. No feeling of wild disorganized drunkenness comes through in the beer party scene, although it must have been there, and many of the audience reaction shots are more detached than intended. The trouble with the beer party scene is that it is set over against a sound track – competent Dixieland by Eli’s Chosen Six, possibly – which simply has nothing to do with the visuals. The Eissnstein-Pudovkin-Clair idea of sound combined contrapuntally with the picture means more than a haphazard combination. The trouble with the audience scenes is not aesthetic asynchronism, however, but the hermetic recording of the music at the concert. To put it another way, the recording was done too well, so that when the camera plays over the audience there is no extraneous sound – none of the bustle, movement, and just plain noise you know is there and expect to hear. It’s eerie watching a half-drunken, apparently raucous dance and hearing only pure music.

Big Maybelle is just as she was in the ample flesh: atrocious, and the Newport Blues Band as inept; I marvelled again at Chuck Berry’s rock-and-roll dance with singing—there is something vital there, which is more than can be said for almost all of the rest of the performers

This miscalculation with the sound track is only a part of the film’s big failure to overcome problems. Bert Stern, the director, had a reputation as a photographer of advertising stills when he was asked to make a film about Newport; Jazz On A Summer’s Day is his first film. But Stern is no naif coming to films for the first time and making something fresh out of the encounter. He’s seen Citizen Kane, and lets you know it: Sweatdripping closeups, shots from odd angles, shots right into the floodlights, shots in pitiless sunlight, shots in almost total darkness – echt Welles-Toland. Plus a few touches from elsewhere, like some scenes of water in which the play of colours in the ripples take on the character of a MacLaren abstraction. There is even a little far-out business with Thelonious Monk and the America’s Cup races which were running concurrently with the festival: The episode begins at Freebody with Monk playing Blue Monk (a real funky tune that sounds like the bridge of Artie Shaw’s Why Begin Again), then cuts to the cabin of a boat while superimposed on the soundtrack’s Monk is the staticky announcement over marine radio of the weather conditions for the start of the boat race.

Jazz On A Summer’s Day is a Cinema 16 film manqué only in a relatively minor way (although from some quotes in the newspapers you get the idea that Stern may think he is starting some kind of nouvelle vague americain), but it’s just that part of it that’s disturbing. The rest is pretty – but not entirely – straight documentary, the Newport 1958 I can recognize, particularly the shots at the various concerts. Anita O’Day’s songs are just as I remembered them, although at the original concert I couldn’t see the fillings in her teeth with quite the same clarity; Big Maybelle is just as she was in the ample flesh: atrocious, and the Newport Blues Band as inept; I marvelled again at Chuck Berry’s rock-and-roll dance with singing – there is something vital there, which is more than can be said for almost all of the rest of the performers; Chico Hamilton turns out to be a hip Paul Whiteman of chamber jazz – it was a shrewd bit of editing (by Aram Avakian?) to follow Chuck with Chico; and there is Shearing, Sonny Stitt, Mulligan, and Dinah Washington. The interview with Louis Armstrong is simply fabulous, and the Lazy River which follows, the best piece of music qua music of the film (and probably the festival), just as the Tiger Rag which followed that is the worst. And I admit to being impressed with Stern’s courage (or foolhardiness) in not only ending the film with Mahalia Jackson, but in having her Lord’s Prayer as the very last number. In spite of its being a real “Look Ma, I’m non-commercial” gesture, it works, and an important reason why it works is the remarkable shots of the audience cut in with shots of Mahalia. Which brings us to the last problem of our seminar “The Documentary Film: Slice-of-Life or Flaherty?”

The basic technique (device, method) of Jazz On A Summer’s Day is the intercutting of shots of the performers with shots of the audience, as I have said not more than half a dozen times. Now Stern has been quoted to the effect that he has cheated just a tiny bit by cutting some shots of the audience taken during one number in with the performance of another number or even another group, if he thought it would fit better. Really, there should be nothing wrong with this, except that it stirs up all the niggling little doubts that I sort of pushed to the back of my mind (where there’s plenty of room). How much of it, I wonder, was staged, how much of it was real? The girl calmly reading a paperback volume of Camille during some lively music? The girl in slacks weaving down through the rocks to the ocean, deliciously tipsy? The striking young Negro girls (sisters?) digging Mahalia like mad? The young Negro hipster type, rapt during her Lord’s Prayer!

A hundred little things like that about the film worry me, which is another way of saying that it doesn’t really succeed. (You know that the tattooing in Moana was done just for the film, but you never think about it when you’re watching the film). Jazz On A Summer’s Day never quite decides what it wants to be, and it’s never quite convincing. But, as the advertisements for it say, it’s a film that stirs the senses. Despite all that’s wrong with it, it’s something to see, particularly for people who’ve never been to Newport and want to get some idea of what it’s all about. Watch for it.

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