The Lost World of Jazz | Pierre Tonguette

IAt a time when mass gatherings most often suggest the social upheaval of the past two years, it’s worth remembering that not all teeming multitudes are equal.

Nowhere is the contrast between the unruly masses of the present and the peaceful crowds of the past better illustrated than in filmmaker Bert Stern’s 1959 concert documentary Jazz on a summer day. This award-winning classic (available in a 4K restoration on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber) is a dazzling cinematic chronicle of Rhode Island’s 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, which featured an impressive roster of artists including Louis Armstrong, Thelonious Monk, and Anita O’Day—all, now, long deceased.

The culture in which that year’s festival took place has also disappeared. Despite the abundance of talent that performed in Newport, Stern’s camera spent just as much time, if not more, practicing on the spectators who showed up to shake their heads, snap their fingers and stamp their feet. Few films have more vividly illustrated the effect performers have on their audiences. Many concert films depict the audience as an indistinct mass – a large swarm that reacts to every hip movement of Mick Jagger – or show only a handful to replace the greatest number, like the screaming teenagers while the Beatles sing “Tell Me Why” in Richard Lester’s masterpiece A hard day’s Night. However, Jazz on a summer day acquaints us with a wide array of unnamed characters soaking up what was happening in Newport sixty-four summers ago: the young woman in the matching red hat and cardigan, the man cooling off with a spread cashmere handkerchief on the head.

The film’s constant focus on the faces in the crowd reveals something that would surprise none of us but is nevertheless surprising to see: namely, that during the second term of Dwight D. Eisenhower’s presidency, ours was a country that still valued manners, courtesy, and a certain kind of decent merriment.

In the lost world evoked in Jazz on a summer day, the warm weather does not prevent one man from wearing a coat and tie, one in three women seems to be wearing a pearl necklace, and the relatively few spectators with cameras fix them firmly on the performers, not, as would be the case today, on themselves. While we cannot know for sure if recreational drugs were used at any point in the crowd, the presence of young children suggests that the aroma of marijuana was not pervasive.

With his background as an acclaimed photographer – his subjects included, among others, Marilyn Monroe – Stern, born in 1929 and died in 2013, takes pleasure in choosing members of the public who intrigue him. Some present seem to be listening to a particular performer – Armstrong and his trumpet, Monk and his piano, or O’Day and his scat singing – but others caught the filmmaker’s attention simply because they are intriguing, unusual, or amusing, such as the man with the clerical collar or the young woman reading a copy of the Dime Novel Camille.

Basically, the audience members don’t appear to be stuffed shirts; after all, these are people who have chosen to spend their day at a jazz festival, not a ballet or a symphony performance. These people were, by the standards of the time, hip; that they nonetheless appear somewhat conventional in appearance and demeanor is a sign of a society in which standards of behavior and dress were deeply entrenched.

More importantly, Stern presents jazz greats on stage against the backdrop of a global world – a world as distant from us as the performers themselves are now. We see not just the crowds that have gathered to listen to the music, but those who live, work or play in Newport more broadly: the townspeople who warily view the jazz fiends as smartly dressed invaders, and the children frolicking happily in area parks, oblivious to the assorted icons nearby. A rival event, the trials for the America’s Cup sailing race, is seen in the distance; yachts dance and tilt amid pleasantly choppy waters. The point Stern makes is this: Newport doesn’t stop for the festival. Audiences may be thrilled by O’Day and smitten by Armstrong, but they don’t harass them like autograph hunters or selfie-goers.

When night comes, the stage’s red lighting gives the performers an otherworldly cast. The late-night performances by Big Maybelle, the Chico Hamilton Quintet and, of course, Armstrong are some of the most electric in the documentary. Then we enter a kind of paradise: master of ceremonies, Voice of America broadcaster Willis Conover, marks the transition from Saturday to Sunday and the simultaneous arrival of the closing act, Mahalia Jackson: “Ladies and gentlemen , it’s Sunday, and it’s time for the world’s greatest gospel singer.The flippant, unsophisticated way in which Conover says “it’s Sunday” is surprisingly powerful.In Newport in 1958, he wasn’t necessary to further explain the meaning of Sunday, or why gospel music – and arguably its greatest practitioner, Jackson – would be appropriate for the occasion.

seen today, Jazz on a summer day sparkles with its glimpses into a world in which people, despite all their differences, have shared so much. When was the last time so many people came together with such kindness and grace?

Peter Tonguette writes from Columbus, Ohio.

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