Updated: Aug 12, 2020
There is a short list of reasons why the 1959 classic Jazz on a Summer’s Day is a must-see music documentary film.
Let’s start with the most obvious one.
It is a milestone, seminal movie, possibly the first major concert film ever made.
And that makes it well worth seeing for jazz junkies and film buffs alike.
It’s an important film, named to the National Film Registry in 1999.
It’s also a beautiful film, artfully shot by one of the superstar commercial still photographers of his day, Bert Stern.
Stern had already created a major splash in the world of ad photography when he was asked to do some photographs of the prestigious 1958 Newport Jazz Festival.
He decided to do it one better by making it into a film, his first venture into the world of filmmaking.
You might know Bert Stern from the famous Marilyn Monroe photos session including tastefully shot nude photos, taken late in her career, just six weeks before her death in 1962 as part of a "Vogue" Magazine assignment.
They became known as "The Last Sitting."
If you haven’t seen them, I encourage you to look them up.
They are hauntingly, timelessly beautiful; intimate portraits of Hollywood’s sexiest starlet as her beauty was beginning to fade.
Her spark shines through. Her eyes speak volumes.
Stern was a master photographer.
He was only 30 when he made Jazz on a Summer’s Day.
He applied his enormous talent for capturing unforgettable images, the framing and lighting, his sense of color and composition, and his choice of lenses, which he adapted from his still cameras that had made his work so identifiable.
The images are another reason to see this movie.
They were shot on 16mm film color stock.
They are breathtaking from the opening title sequences through the concert itself and the activities happening in and around Newport, Rhode Island that weekend, including the American Yacht Club Race.
This is the world of the privileged. The rich and famous of the northeast in 1958.
And that’s another reason to see this film. It is a wonderful time capsule of life among the richest, hippest people of the time.
It’s a fashion showcase of what they wore, how they behaved and what they enjoyed.
In a sense, it’s an elaborate home movie, fascinating to watch for the sheer nostalgia and sneak peeking detail.
It’s a tasty time-trip into the past.
And, of course, there is the now-famous concert featuring a line-up of who’s who in the world of jazz in the late 1950s.
Performances include: Louis Armstrong, Thelonius Monk, Garry Mulligan, Anita O’Day and Dinah Washington.
The movie closes with Mahalia Jackson’s unforgettable rendition of "The Lord’s Prayer," sung at midnight, ushering in Sunday morning with transfixing gospel soul.
Surprisingly, Chuck Berry pops up with a rendition of "Sweet Little Sixteen."
While his fame lies in his founding, pioneering contributions to rock and roll (remember this was 1958) his energy and popularity make him a welcome addition to the festivities.
Like jazz, rock and roll became one of America’s global contributions to the world of music.
So, another reason to see Jazz on a Summer’s Day is to see timeless musical performances from the reigning giants of the recording industry 60 years ago.
This was a pioneering effort.
Both from the standpoint that it had never been done before and the fact that the director (who was also the film’s chief photographer) had never made a movie.
Despite that, the movie is incredibly well produced.
It is truly remarkable for being years ahead of its time.
The similarities to Woodstock (1970) are inescapable in terms of the coverage (both of the artists and the audience) and the approach.
The framing is tight. The camera is as intimate as it can be.
The shots are locked down, letting the performances play out.
There are intercuts from one or two additional cameras occasionally, but the focus is on the close-up shots that fill the frame with faces, both of the performers as well as their adoring fans.
Remarkably, the cutaway shots of the crowd appear to be shot in real time, syncing up with the music on stage.
Often, crowd cutaways are shot randomly and later edited in even when they are out of sequence.
Even Woodstock , made a decade later, appeared to be guilty of that editing trick at times.
But here, listeners are perfectly in sync with what is being sung and played, occasionally singing along to the lyrics.
It almost feels like a live video concert in which producers can cut back and forth between multiple cameras in real time.
The beauty of this little detail is worth mentioning and worth recognizing when you watch the film.
It is a movie way ahead of its time.
And lastly, there is the dazzling restoration of Jazz on a Summer’s Day by IndieCollect, a non-profit organization that has been rescuing, restoring and re-releasing important independent films since 2008.
Their 4K restoration of this film is another reason to check it out.
Their work gives this film an immediacy and freshness that makes it feel like it could have been shot last week.
Aside from the styles and fashion, about the only major tip-off is that it appears in 3:4 format, like all move projects shot on 16mm film.
The images are stunning.
The work of a gifted photographer who effortlessly and successfully applied his skills to filmmaking.
I can’t say enough about Jazz on a Summer’s Day, except that it lives us to all the hype and reverence that it has generated.
It is a treasure.