The first feature-length concert film with live sound, Jazz on a Summer’s Day paved the way for movies like Monterey Pop and Woodstock. Photographing the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, director Bert Stern and his crew captured performances by Thelonious Monk, Dinah Washington and Louis Armstrong, among many others. A historic achievement, added to the National Film Registry in 1999, it was the first opportunity for some viewers to see these stars on stage, in color. To celebrate the film’s 60th anniversary, the non-profit IndieCollect and the National Film Preservation Foundation financed a new, 4K restoration that enhanced the soundtrack as well as the color camerawork. The restoration played to sold-out screenings at last year’s New York Film Festival, and is now streaming available via Kino Lorber’s Virtual Cinema platform Kino Marquee. With the film now available for a wider audience, the makings of capturing this momentous event provide a fascinating look at the evolution of the concert film.
Like Stanley Kubrick, Bert Stern came to film through commercial photography. Born in 1930 in Brooklyn, Stern was a cameraman in the U.S. Army during the early 1950s, where he learned how to use the compact, almost indestructible Eyemo 35 millimeter camera. Like Kubrick, Stern found work at Look magazine. In interviews, Stern has pointed to Kubrick’s early films as the primary inspiration behind Jazz on a Summer’s Day. (Stern also took the iconic photograph of Sue Lyon in heart-shaped sunglasses that was used in the advertising campaign for Kubrick’s 1962 adaptation of Lolita.)
George Wein, the owner of a jazz club and record label, started the Newport Jazz Festival in 1954. Elaine Lorillard, with her husband Louis a significant backer of the festival, invited Stern to document it. By 1958 one of the most recognized commercial photographers in the world, Stern felt that making a feature was the best way to advance his career. He arrived in Newport with a cast and crew and began rehearsals for a fiction film, a romance that would use the festival as a backdrop. But after a few days’ work, Stern abandoned the project, citing at various times an inadequate script, problems with the cast, and his own shortcomings as a filmmaker.
Stern still had permission to shoot on the festival grounds, and switched his focus to covering the musicians performing there. In the director’s words, earlier film documentaries about jazz were usually “black and white, kind of depressing, and in little downstairs nightclubs. This brought jazz out into the sun.” Just as important was Stern’s decision to entrust the sound recording to Columbia Records executive George Avakian. Having one master source for music, rather than assembling piecemeal takes, assured that the final film would have a consistently high-quality sound.
Admitting that he didn’t know much about jazz, Stern also relied on Avakian to determine which performers to shoot. (“The only person I had heard was Chico Hamilton,” he said later.) So although the Festival lasted four days, and showcased musicians like Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, and Miles Davis, Stern and his crew shot performances only on Saturday and Sunday.
Stern had as many as five cameras going at once. He preferred shooting from the foot or the side of the stage, about thirty feet from the performers, using telephoto lenses so that the musicians’ faces would fill the screen. Much was made subsequently about his aiming into stage lights or mixing up camera angles, supposedly breaking the “rules” of documentary filmmaking. But Stern was simply trying to capture what he could from positions that were not conducive to classical styles of cinematography. Far more revolutionary was his decision to cut away from musicians to unrelated shots of waterfront scenes, yachting, tourists, etc. At times Stern’s photography provides an abstract counterpoint to the music on the soundtrack; at other times, he offers what could be interpreted as a “narrative” for a song. These tactics became mainstays of the musical documentary genre. Concert films today are unthinkable without shots of concertgoers, of arenas before and after shows, of candid interviews and freewheeling montages of settings and surroundings.
George Avakian’s younger brother Aram edited the film. Born in 1926, Aram attended both Yale and the Sorbonne before working as an editor on the CBS documentary series See It Now, hosted by Edward R. Murrow. In the years following the release of Jazz on a Summer’s Day, some have asserted that Aram deserves a director’s credit for helping Stern shape the material as he was shooting it. Stern agreed that Avakian was “the most experienced filmmaker on the set,” but insisted that “Jazz on a Summer’s Day is not directed. It was produced and filmed.” (On the other hand, Stern also claimed that ninety per cent of the film is his. )
There’s no question that Aram Avakian was a crucial component to the film’s success. Stern received some financial help from Elaine Lorillard, but essentially paid for the shoot himself. He also had to come up with the money for editing, which was a six-month process. Avakian whittled 80,000 feet of film down to 8,000, preparing short segments that Stern would show to prospective investors. (Some sources claim that Stern shot up to 130,000 feet.) The strategy persuaded Chicago lawyer Milton Gordon to put up the $30,000 to $40,000 Stern needed to complete the film. (Gordon formed Galaxy Attractions after making millions by syndicating Charlie Chan and Ramar of the Jungle to television.)
Some of Stern’s decisions can be questioned today, such as following a Dixieland band through the streets of Newport, editing out passages of songs, adding transitional footage shot later on Long Island, or cutting away from Thelonious Monk to show part of the America’s Cup trials. But Stern’s eye for composition offset many of the obstacles he faced filming, and also prefigure many of the documentary techniques that have become more familiar in recent years. The lack of a voice-over narration, a commonplace approach in the 1960s, seems especially daring here. Stern and his crew also captured some incredible performances with an intimacy and immediacy missing from earlier documentaries, giving viewers new insights into well-known figures like Louis Armstrong.
Stern shot the performances before getting clearances from the musicians, then had to negotiate rights with them individually. At $25,000, almost a quarter of the entire budget, Armstrong was the most expensive. One of the great artists of the twentieth century, Armstrong is in fine form here, even though this was material he had been performing for up to thirty years. Equally impressive is Mahalia Jackson, another Columbia Records artist who closes the film’s performances.
Jazz on a Summer’s Day can also be treasured for the serendipitous moments captured throughout. In one of the most memorable, we witness Chuck Berry, looking impossibly young and handsome, bulling his way through “Sweet Little Sixteen” while jazz stalwarts like Jack Teagarden look on bemusedly. When Berry has to pause for a clarinet solo in the middle of his rock-and-roll anthem, you get a sense of how out of place he must have felt. Stern went on to direct three short films about Twiggy, the 1960s model, but his importance as a filmmaker rests on Jazz on a Summer’s Day, the precursor to a generation of live performance on film that would follow.
Jazz on a Summer’s Day is now available on Kino Marquee.