“Jazz on a Summer’s Day”, whose recent 4K remastered version was somehow released in South Korean theaters a few days ago, is an interesting time capsule which attempts to bring us into one day of the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival in Rhode Island. Although it feels rather tame and limited in many aspects, this famous 1959 concert film is still worthwhile to watch for a number of well-known musicians at the height of their careers, and I assure you that these musicians surely do not disappoint us via their sheer talent and presence.
At the beginning, the directors Bert Stern and Aram Avakian (Stern also served as the main cinematographer of the film while Avakin served as its chief editor, by the way) establishes the main tone of the film via a series of leisurely moments captured on the camera. While we see many cars arriving in Newport, the film gives us a brief audio interview with one of those festival attendants, and it also observes how some of local people are rather annoyed by the resulting festive mood surrounding their seaside town, which also happened to hold the 1958 America’s Cup yacht races during that time.
Frequently showing those competing yachts as well as the sea, the film slowly starts with Jimmy Guiffre as the first musician to perform on that day. Although he is relatively less well-known to many of us compared to other more prominent jazz musicians in the film, Guiffre and his band members did a fairy good job as the opening part, and then the film begins to roll further as other guest performers appear one by one. In case of Thelonious Monk, it is a bit shame that the film does not show more of his excellent performance on the stage, and I must tell you that I was quite impressed by the following performance of Anita O’Day, though I later learned via the IMDB Trivia that she was not exactly in her best condition at that time due to her longtime drug addiction problem.
Meanwhile, I also noticed how the audiences at the festival were rather mild in their reactions and responses. To be frank with you, most of them look like mere spectators instead of really interested audiences, and the film also seems to be bored a bit as occasionally shifting its focus onto what is going on outside the festival. At one point, we see a musician practicing a bit with his instrument, and that is surely more interesting moment to watch compared to those plain sights of frequently distracted festival audiences under the broad daylight.
Anyway, the mood of the festival thankfully continues to go up and up as before, and things get more interesting when the night is about to begin. After a terrific performance by Dinah Washington, we are treated with a special appearance by Chuck Berry. Though I must point out that this is not exactly one of the highpoints in his career, Berry’s performance galvanizes those festival audiences enough, and it was rather amusing for me to observe how they become much more responsive and enthusiastic compared to what I observed from them during the daytime.
Later in the film, Louis Armstrong finally appears, and it is noteworthy that this is one of very rare film appearances in his legendary career. According to the IMDB Trivia, Stern had to pay Armstrong no less than $ 25,000 for that, and Armstrong surely gave a moment to remember along with Jack Teagarden, though I must point out that the camera often focuses on their faces a bit too much instead of trying to immerse us more into what they generated along with other musicians on the stage.
After Armstrong and Teagarden’s duo performance, there comes Mahalia Jackson, and she certainly gives another highlight via her gracefully powerful performance of “The Lord’s Prayer”, which was incidentally the one to close the concert of that day. My eyes were initially focused more on the Korean subtitle, but I came to pay more attention more on how skillfully she delivered the intense emotions inside her performance, and it is no wonder that she has been remembered as one of the most influential American gospel singers for more than 50 years since her death in 1972.
While enjoying these and other highlights in the film to considerable degree, I must tell you that I also could not help but observe a number of weak aspects in the film. While it is indeed one of the notable concert films from the 1950s, Stern and Avakin’s rather earnest approach to their materials sometimes prevents the film becoming truly vivid and visceral, and you may need to get some extra background information in advance, because the film mostly presents its raw footage clips without much explanation.
Nevertheless, “Jazz on a Summer’s Day” is still highly recommendable for not only its cultural importance (It was already selected for preservation in the US National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 1999, by the way) but also its entertaining musical moments to savor. As a concert film, it feels technically less impressive compared to many of its juniors such as “Woodstock” (1970), but it is indubitably an important piece of work to be cherished and remembered, and I am happy to report that its 4K remastered version today, which, as far I could see, looks fairly clean and sharp on the big screen. In short, this is a little nice surprise treat for me and many other audiences in South Korea, and I do appreciate that despite some grumble.