All I Want Is Music! Music! Music!
“The amazing thing is that fifty years later, some of us are still here,” said the music impresario afterwards, and the wonderful thing is that, Jazz on a Summer’s Day in a new 35 mm print, is as much a delight now as then. That music man is Newport Jazz Festival founder George Wein, sharing the Lincoln Center Fourth of July stage with Bert Stern for a post-showing Q&A on the Vogue photographer’s sole assay into filmmaking.
The whole recorded in its turn by Shannah Laumeister, to be edited into Becoming Bert Stern, the three-year project she hopes to have ready by autumn, the two men’s reminiscences furnished additional insight into the gold standard of concert films, imitated, maybe equaled by some few, but never surpassed.
Even the deflating revelation of a planted red-sweatered Vogue model in places and of the time-filler staging, away in Long Island, of dancing on a sloped roof while others sit in windows downing Rheingold brought up on a waiter’s tray, could not dampen the effect, for, indeed, the interludes fit so well, seamless moments among other soft, spontaneous swaying. The discussion, and a few prefatory frames of Laumeister’s documentary, reveal the happy circumstances and coincidences that make Stern’s record unrepeatable -- “no one can ever do it better,” according to Spike Lee, and Stern joked that any JSD II “would have to be animated” -- including his never making another moving picture because logistics are “too difficult, a big deal [involving] too many people.”
Insiders had doubted that it could be done, period, not for $140,000, and, acquainted with some organizers of the then-four-year-old Festival, the director did not originally envision a feature but “a very interesting short film, a movie with a story, [which] turned out too much for me.” Shooting under the stipulation of not interfering with the performers, using a long still lens attached to a movie camera for the strongly side-lit intercalated audience shots, Stern and crew -- “great credit to the people who worked on it,” mostly not listed onscreen -- developed the “influential reversed light” backlighting for stage performances indoors and out-, mildly grainy against unadorned monochrome, often reddish backdrops.
Recording only those artists to whom they could secure rights, and editor Aram Avakian and sound and music men Elliot Gruskin and George Avakian taking a careful six months to sync sound with image, added to the loss of five thousand feet of small-camera improvisational footage -- “so you may not have seen the best part” (joke) -- the filmmaker fleshed out to eighty-five minutes with vignettes of the town, of children and parents, antique and modern sports cars, a house rehearsal, zoom-lensed spectators and sails in the concurrent offshore America’s Cup races.
“Captured the whole thing, the spirit of Newport,” Wein asserted, all interspersed with the rippling play of light and color on Narragansett Bay and along Ocean Drive. This background of and to human community was in part serendipitous -- not one seagull showed up for an early A.M. shoot, but Stern happened to notice the reflected abstract water patterns which were to become so integrated -- although the core obviously remains in the performances.
There is no narrative, no voiceover, no printed chyron identification, only sometimes the unobtrusive actual stage introduction by an M.C. or the presentation by a performer of his backing group. Outside heads do not tell us what to think, nor do mass swaying audiences or waving lighter-bearing arms take up screen time. Individuals “groove” or “bop,” couples embrace in leisurely Lindy hop, and mouths in the crowd form the words sung onstage into birdcage mics. Applause invariably followed the numbers, from both the film’s Newport attendees and those in the Lincoln Center Walter Reade Theatre.
Simplicity is the operative word, and those who make the music and those who enjoy it are allowed to create their own atmosphere. There are no stage histrionics or smoke except for that from cigarettes and a cigar (the year is 1958) or dazzling light extravaganzas, no posturing, the only notable stage move being the trademark Groucho duckwalk of a Chuck Berry to whose Festival inclusion Wein had objected. There are slight buckteeth or missing molars, dewlaps and a roll of neck fat, but none of the every-pore ultra-close-ups in vogue nowadays. Nothing is here to distract from the music, not even clothing, informal elegance: only a few strands of pearls, universal lipstick, dresses topped with wide-brim hats, suits or sports jackets (yes, Monk’s is plaid and Gerry Mulligan’s red) with ties (Berry’s string Western), a cummerbund and men’s pocket handkerchiefs (and one in Mahalia Jackson’s hand and, of course, one in Satchmo’s). And, pre-Michael Jackson or Madonna-kink, stylish women’s gloves.
The music is the focus, and how good it is! From the unidentified Dixieland band that opens the film in an antique car and, dead beat, closes it, to Sonny Stitt, George Shearing, Big Maybelle (blues to balance Mahalia’s closing gospel), Chico Hamilton, Jack Teagarden, Danny Barcelona, Max Roach and others, all what today would term “awesome.” Among personal favorites are a Dinah Washington so in voice and so happy that she joins in impromptu on the xylophone; and Anita O’Day, hobbled on the wood-plank stairs by her dress, starting “Sweet Georgia Brown” downtempo and later scatting with her instrumentalists, “really extraordinary. It gave her career a big boost.”
Selected in 2001 by the Librarian of Congress for the National Film Registry of “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” works, Jazz on a Summer’s Day is frequently cited as the template for Monterrey Pop and Oscar-winning Woodstock, to which should be added the more intimate Roy Orbison & Friends: A Black and White Night. Almost alone in its jazz emphasis, impressive in its fusion of performers and ambience, Bert Stern’s one film compels in capturing musical spirit before gatherings of the tribe became commercial orchestrated total-package mega-spectacles. There was once a time that music soothed, not riled, the savage breast.
(Released by New York Video; not rated by MPAA.)