Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 11, 2020

Jazz on a Summer’s Day

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 7:20 pm

Starting tomorrow, a digital restoration of Bert Stern’s documentary “Jazz on a Summer’s Day” will be available as Kino-Lorber Virtual Cinema. It captures the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, which at the time was one of the most heralded venues for both jazz and non-jazz artists. Stern was not a documentary filmmaker. His claim to fame was as a fashion and portrait photographer, best known for his 1962 series of photos of Marilyn Monroe that became known as The Last Sitting. Decades ago, I saw a selection of the Monroe photos at a NY gallery with my old friend Laura Kronenberg that left an indelible impression. What makes his 1959 documentary a classic, besides the music, was a vivid portrait of Newport, Rhode Island at a time when the USA looked far different than it does today.

Besides seeing handsome young people applauding the musicians and dancing in the aisles, we see a yacht regatta that took place the same day. While I was a bit annoyed when footage of the yachts was superimposed over a Thelonious Monk performance at the festival, it is easy to understand why the average film-goer might not have complained. I’d rather have preferred seeing Monk’s fingers dancing across the keyboard but the boats gave the film the visual variety a straightforward concert recording might have lacked.

In a NY Review of Books blog post, J. Hoberman recommends the film with qualifications:

The music is mainstream even by 1958 standards (Stern did not deign to document Miles Davis or John Coltrane, and Thelonious Monk is cut to a bare minimum). Still, Jazz on a Summer’s Day does conjure a peaceable kingdom—young and old, black and white, hip and square, rich and less rich—presided over by the most benign of founding fathers, Louis Armstrong, whose influence is evident on virtually all of the artists.

I am not sure how much J. Hoberman knows about jazz but, while I would have loved to see Davis and Coltrane, there are gem performances in the documentary that do capture important trends in the mid to late 1950s, starting with a fabulous performance of Jimmy Giuffre’s tune “The Train and the River”, performed by the Jimmy Giuffre Trio with him on alto sax, Bob Brookmeyer on valve trombone and Jim Hall on guitar. You can see their performance below:

Giuffre, Dave Brubeck, the Modern Jazz Quartet, and even Miles Davis were trying to move past bebop conventions at the time. This meant using unconventional combinations of instruments such as exemplified by Giuffre’s trio. It also meant experimenting with new rhythms and harmonies such as Dave Brubeck’s “Blue Rondo à la Turk”, an adaptation of  of Mozart’s “Rondo alla Turka”.

To some extent this post-bebop style became identified as West Coast jazz since many of the practitioners like Shelly Manne were based in California. It also was sometimes dismissed as white jazz since in fact Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker, Stan Getz were white.

But when you hear the Chico Hamilton quintet’s performance at the festival, you’ll understand how this reductionism does not really apply. Chico Hamilton was African-American as was Eric Dolphy, who while being part of the band, is not heard during their performance. Like Giuffre, Hamilton used a guitarist rather than a pianist to provide underlying harmonies. He also featured a cellist rather than a bass player, which gives the music a more intimate feel. Hamilton’s quintet was one of the most forward-looking bands of the period and we are blessed to see it in performance.

Festival impresario George Wien always made sure to feature non-jazz artists like Mahalia Jackson, whose gospel songs conclude the film. He also included Chuck Berry of all people, whose connections to jazz were even more distant than Jackson’s. However, in one of the more intriguing moments in the film, we see him playing “Sweet Little Sixteen” with none other than Jo Jones on the drums. Jones was Count Basie’s drummer and the last person I’d expect to be see backing up Chuck Berry. What’s even more unexpected is a wild solo that Pee Wee Russell takes on clarinet with Chuck Berry looking on transfixed. Pee Wee looks even more demented than Chuck and that ain’t easy. Pee Wee Russell was one of the more varied talents in jazz for well over five decades. He not only played alongside Frankie Trumbauer and Bix Beiderbecke in the 20s, his 1963 album “Ask Me Now” including tunes by Ornette Coleman, Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane. (I should mention that Russell was white.)

The Newport Jazz Festival was launched in 1954 with funding by Elaine Lorillard and her husband Louis, an heir to the Lorillard fortune that rested on tobacco. The 1956 film “High Society” depicted their romance with Bing Crosby and Grace Kelly in the leading roles. Louis Lorillard was a descendant of Robert Livingston, first Lord of Livingston Manor that a nearby village near my upstate NY home town was apparently named after. He was also descended from Pierre Lorillard, who founded the P. Lorillard tobacco company in 1760. Long before tobacco money helped found the Newport Jazz Festival, it was sponsoring the Paul Whiteman and Artie Shaw bands on the radio.

Elaine Lorillard got the idea for starting the festival through discussions she had with John Hammond, a top executive of Columbia Records who was sympathetic to the Communist Party in the 1930s. The fruit of their collaboration was a festival that incorporated the cultural and social ethos of New Deal liberalism that died many years ago. If you watch “Jazz on a Summer’s Day”, you’ll get a feel for the optimism of the time when American prosperity benefited all Americans, of course excluding those with Black skin not blessed with Louis Armstrong or Mahalia Jackson’s talent.

3 Comments »

  1. Wonderful read. Brought together many threads of my musical and pop media experience. I am, by the way, of your vintage.

    A small point: Guiffre is playing the tenor rather than the alto. Tenors are immediately identifiable by the long curved neck; an alto’s neck is short and mostly straight. Guiffre is playing mostly in the upper register, however. Still a tenor’s tone is
    not as pure as an alto’s.

    Of the stuff I read almost every day, your essays are by far the most informative, diverse and entertaining. My sincere thanks.

    Comment by Mike — August 11, 2020 @ 7:50 pm

  2. Great film. I saw it when it was first released, at some small art theater in Manhattan. Duke Ellington was terrific, too.

    Comment by walterlx — August 11, 2020 @ 8:20 pm

  3. Great read, but the Lorillards did not meet until the mid-’40s. “High Society” is a musical remake of “The Philadelphia Story” (1940), so Wikipedia notwithstanding, it is definitely NOT a depiction of their romance.

    Comment by mezzodiva54 — August 13, 2020 @ 7:45 pm


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