Directed by Bert Stern and Aram Avakian
Inducted to the National Film Registry in 1999
What It’s About:
Jazz on a Summer’s Day documents several performances during the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival in Newport, Rhode Island. The Festival took place over the July 4th weekend, and had around 10,000 visitors. The film includes footage of several famous musicians, including Mahalia Jackson, Thelonius Monk, Chuck Barry, and Louis Armstrong. It also attempts to capture the feel of attending that event by including shots of the audience, footage of a yacht race that was also happening in Newport at the time, and shots of people from around the area going about their everyday life.
Context and Significance:
Jazz on a Summer’s Day is often considered to be the first concert film. While it is usually classified as a documentary, many have remarked that the “documentary” label is inadequate, since the film isn’t particularly trying to tell a story, as many documentaries do, rather it is trying to portray what it was like to be at this event. Additionally, some have criticised the film for not focusing enough on the music, stating that some of the more artistic shots and aspects of the film distract from the performances. However, the film is still seen as heavily influential on the sub-genre of concert films. As Jack Fields writing for Turner Classic Movies put it: “The use of multiple cameras shooting simultaneously from different angles was groundbreaking for its time and is now the standard for any live performance recording.”
The primary director of the film, Bert Stern, was a fashion and advertising photographer. He was invited to photograph the festival, but eventually decided to capture it on video instead, partially to fulfill a lifelong dream of making a movie. When thinking of previous “jazz films”, Stern felt that they were typically darkly lit and indoors, so he wanted to create a unique take by filming this outdoor festival. In order to make sure that the nighttime shots of the performances and audience members were well-lit, he paid to have lighting equipment used at the festival.
That said, Stern admitted that he was not a jazz enthusiast, so he relied on a partner in the music business, George Avakian, to know which performances that they should shoot. One common criticism of the film is that there were several popular artists who performed at the festival who were never filmed (such as Duke Ellington, Ray Charles, and Miles Davis). Some speculate that George Avakian may have been biased in favor of the artists that were represented by the music company for which he worked. Nevertheless, Stern and company took an unusual approach in creating the film: they made video and audio recordings of as many of the performances as they hoped to use, and only afterwards did they seek permission to be able to use those recordings. The most expensive performance included in the film is that of Louis Armstrong. The rights to include his performance ended up costing $25,000 out of the $115,000 budget for the film.
It took the editor, Aram Avakian (brother of George Avakian), nearly six months to edit the film, as there was thousands of feet of film from five different cameras, which he had to sync up with the audio recordings. (Bert Stern said it was 180,000 feet of initial footage at one time, but another time said it was only 80,000.) The final film ended up being 8,000 feet.
The film eventually caused contention between Aram Avakian and Bert Stern. The film was Stern’s idea, and he oversaw all of the aspects of its creation, but Avakian insisted that since he edited the film together and created what was essentially the final product, he should receive a director’s credit. Stern, on the other hand, while typically credited as the director, insisted that the film didn’t have a director, as there was nothing to direct. The film wasn’t telling a story so much as capturing a live experience. While Stern is listed as the director of the film, some now give the director’s credit to both Stern and Avakian.
Jazz on a Summer’s Day went on to become both a critical success and an influential film, but Stern decided to resume his career as a photographer after its release, and it was the only film that he ever made.
Jazz on a Summer’s Day premiered at the 1959 Venice Film Festival.
Like Stern, I’m not a huge jazz enthusiast, so much of the music didn’t particularly speak to me. However, I was a huge fan of the way that this film immersed you in the experience of being in Newport on this weekend. This film almost has a “home-movie” feel, and not in a low-quality way. I wasn’t alive at the time of this festival (even my parents would have been only young children), but the film still managed to evoke a sense of familiarity and nostalgia for me. Nostalgia for what specifically, I cannot say, but it made me want to go back to a lazy outdoor summer day, with family, friends, and an event crowded with people.
This was completely unplanned timing on my part, but Kino Lorber actually happens to be hosting a virtual screening of this film right now, and it’s available to stream for a limited time. If you visit this website, you can stream it and you can choose a local independent theater to support with the cost of your stream! (If you don’t have a local independent theater listed on that website that you’d like to contribute to, you could always choose to contribute to my local theater: the Utah Film Center.)
Otherwise, the DVD is available on Amazon and eBay. I was able to find it at my university library, so it’s also worth checking to see whether your library has it or if you can get it through interlibrary loan. (If you’ve never used interlibrary loan before, be sure to ask your librarian about it, as it is a service that most libraries offer that allows you to obtain items from other libraries around the country.)
Video clips from Jazz on a Summer’s Day:
Information sources and additional resources:
- Wikipedia page for Jazz on a Summer’s Day: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jazz_on_a_Summer%27s_Day
- Breakdowns and reviews of all of the musical performances in Jazz on a Summer’s Day: https://web.archive.org/web/20080821141246/http://www.jazz.com/dozens/the-dozens-jazz-on-a-summers-day
- The original 1960 New York Times review: https://www.nytimes.com/1960/03/29/archives/the-screen-jazz-on-a-summers-dayfilm-of-newport-fete-opens-at-2-the.html
- A review from a 1997 theatrical re-release: https://www.nydailynews.com/archives/nydn-features/fine-day-jazz-history-article-1.777753
- A more critical review from The New Yorker: https://www.newyorker.com/culture/richard-brody/a-classic-jazz-documentary-that-honors-and-insults-the-art-form
- A review from the New York State Writers Institute: https://www.albany.edu/writers-inst/webpages4/filmnotes/fnf05n1.html
- A brief article from Turner Classic Movies: http://www.tcm.com/this-month/article.html?isPreview=&id=1572376%7C1572391&name=Jazz-on-a-Summer-s-Day
- An article from the Chicago Jazz Magazine that provides a good look at the history of both Jazz on a Summer’s Day and the Newport Jazz Festival: https://www.chicagojazzmagazine.com/post/view-from-the-inside-remembering-jazz-on-a-summer-s-day
- Another review: https://spectrumculture.com/2020/08/16/jazz-on-a-summers-day-review/