In the documentary Jazz on a Summer’s Day, filmed at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, the photographer and director Bert Stern deploys ravishing color to depict the youthful budding of a rapturous, color-blind America.
It’s been called a political statement, and so it is: what seems an idyll to us—beer-steeped lovers dancing on a roof, races mingling racily on the stage and off—must have seemed, to the starched elders of Newport in the late 50s, stark proof of the nation’s decline and a harbinger of its imminent fall. (Or, at least, of the ethanol-fueled riots that would shut down the festival two years later.)
The idyll was, like most, an illusion—that summer and fall, sit-ins would commence in Oklahoma, Governor Faubus would shut down high schools to uphold segregation in Little Rock, and Joseph Jeter would be murdered by police in Atlanta. But Stern’s camera, drinking deep the nectar of this summer day, dared the dream to be real.
So, yes, a political statement. But a metaphysical statement too. Stern’s aim, he said, was to show “the form and beauty of jazz by the various devices, such as wave and water effects, children playing and reflections.”
Sailboats scud and waves churn to Monk’s plunks. A baby jiggles to “Tea for Two,” unaware of the terrifying, crocodilian overbite Anita O’Day displays in profile. A sequin-capped bow on Dinah Washington’s pink gown takes on a life of its own, undulant as “All of Me.” Sea spray scatters abstractly as eighth notes spray from Sal Salvador’s fretboard. Eli’s Chosen Six make surprise Dixielandings on playground rides and seaside rocks.
The startling insertion of Bach, with bare-chested cellist Nate Gershman sweating as copiously in his room as any of the musicians onstage, reminds us that jazz is—at last—just music. Like any music, it is, at its deepest level, the expression not of any one race or nation or even species, but of the motions and energies of nature itself.
In the film, which Kino Lorber is making available for streaming in a newly restored 4K edition next week, nature dances to the music—easily, for the music is its own. Nature is the wind in music’s sails.
As Thoreau condensed two years at Walden Pond into one, so Stern condenses four days at Newport into one, letting the rhythms of nature jibe with the patterns of the music. The diurnal sequence culminates in a sublime sucker punch: not long after the incursion of a duckwalking Chuck Berry that made Newport impresario George Wein “cringe”— the specter of rock ’n’ roll menacing not only sweet little 16s, but the very integrity of music—we get the gentle, monumental Mahalia Jackson. Swing dancing to a spiritual (inter-racial swing dancing, no less) may have shocked some Newport Congregationalists, but then comes “The Lord’s Prayer,” ushering in the new day.
Almost despite themselves, the listeners are stilled with reverence, as if they’d stumbled from a raucous honky-tonk into a place of hushed sanctity. As the craggy “amen” dies away, the political and metaphysical merge. What seemed a dazzled midsummer dream stands revealed, at last, as a prayer.
Jazz on a Summer’s Day will be available to watch on the Kino Lorber Web site beginning August 12
Evan Eisenberg writes about jazz for Air Mail