It’s as cool, & as hot, as Jazz on a Summer’s Day

A Music Documentary
Directed by Bert Stern

The concert documentary didn’t start with Woodstock, Gimme Shelter, or even Monterey Pop. In fact, it didn’t even start with rock ‘n’ roll. But it just may have started with Jazz on a Summer’s Day. Shot in and around the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, and released a year later, it’s one of the best of its kind.

First of all, there’s the line-up. The performers include Louis Armstrong, Anita O’Day, Mahalia Jackson, and even a little upstart named Chuck Berry.

It was a strange day and place for that sort of event. The locals were extremely rich, and a lot of people came not for the music but for the America’s Cup Yacht races happening on the same day. The filmmakers didn’t ignore the other big event. Early on, the film cuts back and forth between the concert and the yachts. Thankfully, that doesn’t last long. Who cares about unidentified millionaires when great musicians are performing on stage? The film also includes shots of musicians rehearsing and young people dancing in what appears to be domestic homes.

All the musicians were more than worth listening to, but quite a few blew me into the stratosphere. Thelonious Monk and his Trio were just tremendous. I never was a big fan of Anita O’Day, but watching as well as listening to her gave me new insight. She’s funny (intentionally so) while she sings at an amazing speed. Her hat screams 1950s!

By 1958, rock was becoming an important musical form, and the Festival welcomed it with Big Maybelle and Chuck Berry. No one in the live audience objected to the new musical genre.

Most concert documentaries keep the cameras on the performers, but Summer’s Day often turns much of its focus on the audience, who are clearly having a great time. The only concert movies I can think of that spent so much time on the fans are Woodstock, where the audience thought they were creating utopia, and Gimme Shelter, which showed that utopia was a long way off. But in Newport 1958, everyone just seems to be having fun. Many danced ecstatically, and even those sitting in the folding chairs seem delighted.

The audience was racially mixed – even if most of the crowd was white. For 1958, in a small town filled with rich people, this was about as far as integration came.

Not surprisingly, Louis Armstrong and his All-Stars gave a great performance in the penultimate act. I never quite figured out how that gravely voice could sound so smooth. And when he put his lips to his trumpet, it was like velvet coming out of the horn.

Who can follow Louis Armstrong? No one but the queen of Gospel, Mahalia Jackson. She closed the concert, or at least the film, with the Lord’s Prayer.

The documentary was shot in 35mm – a rare choice for a concert movie even a decade later. The film has recently received a 4K restoration by IndieCollect. It looked excellent.

You can stream Jazz on a Summer’s Day through the BAMPFA on Wednesday.