Jazz on a Summer's Day
This riveting documentary of the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival features iconic performances and is a spirited portrait of an era on the cusp of change.
The Newport Jazz Festival was created in 1954 by Rhodes Island socialites Elaine and Louis Lorillard. It couldn’t have come at a better time. With a few exceptions, the big band jazz scene had waned in the early 1950s and in its place smaller groups and solo performers took centre stage. That suited the nature of a festival perfectly and Newport achieved immediate success. By its fifth edition, the talent appearing reflected Newport’s status as one of the pre-eminent festivals in the US.
Photographer Bert Stern and director-editor Aram Avakian’s film of the 1958 festival, captures many of the key performances across its four days. The line-up includes Dinah Washington, Gerry Mulligan and Art Farmer, Chico Hamilton and Eric Dolphy, Anita O’Day, Thelonious Monk, Louis Armstrong and the extraordinary Mahalia Jackson, who would go on to give one of the most moving performances at the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, which featured in the recent documentary of that event, Summer of Soul.
A key element of Jazz on a Summer’s Day, which would come to inspire subsequent concert films, was its focus on the audience. Through cutaways interspersed throughout the performances, the filmmakers present a time capsule of the US as it edged towards the New Frontier of the Kennedy era. It was this moment – the hope of change – that so many jazz artists had been pushing towards. The resulting combination of performance and observation makes Jazz on a Summer’s Day one of the great concert documentaries.