Photographer Bert Stern, best known for his pioneering ad work –he was the “original mad man,” according to his official bio – and glamorous portraits of Marilyn Monroe, made only one film in his career, Jazz on a Summer’s Day. That documentary, freshly restored to 4K, is enough, though, to make one regret that Stern – who died in 2013 – chose to stick to still photography.
Jazz on a Summer’s Day is Stern’s impressionistic chronicle of the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival. At its core, the film is a record of the performances that include sets from jazz greats Jimmy Giuffre, Thelonious Monk, Anita O’Day, Sonny Stitt, Gerry Mulligan, Big Maybelle Smith, George Shearing, Dinah Washington, Chico Hamilton, Louis Armstrong, as well as rock ‘n’ roll pioneer Chuck Berry, and gospel singer Mahalia Jackson. For anyone who loves the best of music from that era, this is bliss, from Giuffre’s instrumental that opens the film to Dinah Washington’s soulful rendition of “All of Me” (during which she playfully joins in on vibraphone during the song’s instrumental break) to Armstrong’s energetic “Tiger Rag” to Jackson climaxing the film with a soulful “Lord’s Prayer.”
Beyond the world of the stage, Stern sought to capture the full essence of Newport on that tuneful weekend, roaming the town and the concert grounds with his camera. A Dixieland band riding in an open jalopy brings its joyful noise to the city’s streets, horns blaring. Stern follows along, later catching the young musicians playing on the beach at sunset. Children frolic in their yards and at a carnival.
Sailing trials for the America’s Cup were at Newport that weekend, too, and Stern is there, flying along overhead or skimming along the water with the boats. The images of a trio of yachts bobbing on the water cross-cut with Thelonious Monk performing “Blue Monk” are indelible.
The camera ventures into the festival audience capturing young lovers dancing, parents grooving along with their children, and the rapt faces of entranced fans. Pianist George Shearing appears in one of these asides, a huge smile on his face as he mimes playing a keyboard while Louis Armstrong wails on stage. The only sound in the film is the music itself, announcements from the stage, and the occasional off-camera remark, typically a conversation between festival organizers. The cinematography is a rich kaleidoscope of sounds and pictures.
Stern was 29 when he shot Jazz on a Summer’s Day, and already one of America’s premier photographers. For this project, he dispensed even with light meters, he and his fellow camera people Courtney Hafela and Ray Phealan using their own judgment when it came to setting exposures. They deliberately broke rules – shooting directly into stage lights, for example.
When Stern was done that weekend, he came away with a collection of gorgeous, color-saturated images. Jazz on a Summer’s Day is visually spectacular, never more so than 62 years after it was shot. IndieCollect’s 4K restoration amplifies the film’s beauty, the complement to its aural enchantments. The doc was always glorious, now its shimmering qualities have been enhanced. It is a pure delight. –Pam Grady