Jazz on a Summer’s Day (1959) – Film #0270

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.

My Thoughts:

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.

Availability:

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.)

To see one-minute videos about each film on the National Film Registry, and to get previews of upcoming posts, be sure to follow me on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

Video clips from Jazz on a Summer’s Day:

Information sources and additional resources:

Jammin’ the Blues (1944) – Film #0162

Directed by Gjon Mili
Inducted to the National Film Registry in 1995

What It’s About:

Jammin’ the Blues is a 1944 short film that features several acclaimed jazz musicians of the day performing three different songs. The film portrays the performances in a rather stylized way that is somewhat reminiscent of a modern music video. 

Context and Significance:

Jammin’ the Blues was nominated for the 1944 Oscar for “Best Live Action Short Subject, One-Reel.”

The audio for the music was recorded first, which was then played back for the musicians while their performance was captured on film. 

Since the film included a white guitarist (Barney Kessel) performing with an otherwise all-black cast of musicians, the producer of the film was worried that it would be controversial in the South, where many people favored segregation. However, the director (who openly opposed segregation) was insistent that Kessel (a talented guitarist) should be in the film. As a compromise, Kessel was allowed to be in the film, but he was kept in the shadows, so that it wasn’t clear that he was white.

The full list of performers in the film includes: Lester Young, Red Callender, Harry “Sweets” Edison, Marlowe Morris, “Big” Sid Catlett, Jo Jones, Barney Kessel, John Simmons, Illinois Jacquet, Marie Bryant, and Archie Savage.

My Thoughts:

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m incredibly unfamiliar with jazz music (both its history, and the genre in general). While I have nothing against it, it’s not one of my go-to music genres. That said, this was a fun film to watch. As I mentioned above, it feels like watching an old-timey music video. The shots alternate between light and dark backgrounds, the angle and placing of the camera varies throughout the film, we get a lot of extreme close-ups of the various musicians performing on their instruments mixed in with wider shots of the whole ensemble, and we even get some visual effects, as certain images are repeated multiple times on screen. In general, the visuals enhance the music, and provide for a better experience than just listening to the music alone (something that can’t be said about some modern music videos.) 

To see one-minute videos about each film on the National Film Registry, and to get previews of upcoming posts, be sure to follow me on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

Availability:

Jammin’ with the Blues is available on YouTube:

I initially hunted it down on a DVD though, since there seemed to be a discrepancy between sources about its length. The official website for the National Film Registry mentioned that it was 20 minutes long, but IMDb listed it as 10 minutes. I found a video of the film a few places online, and each video was 10 minutes, but since I knew that online uploads are often incomplete/unreliable, I decided to find one of the DVDs that it was included on, and watch it there. I can confirm that the NFR website seems to be in error, and that it is indeed 10 minutes. Should you prefer a physical copy for some reason, Wikipedia lists this film as being available on the following DVDs: Jammin’ With the Greats, Passage to Marseille (which is where I found it), Norman Granz: Improvisation, and Blues in the Night.

Information sources and additional resources: