Sunday, July 29, 2007

Jazz On A Summer's Day (1958)

Hailed by critics to be the best jazz film ever, famous photographer's Bert Stern's Jazz On A Summer's Day lives up to its reputation today.

Shot in Newport, RI during the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival and the America's Cup trials of the same year, initially intended as a full length motion picture, it was downsized to a concert documentary due to lack of funds. We have to thank our good luck for this, as this film broke new ground on how a live music performance should be captured. It literally wrote the book.

Shot in lush color instead of the grim black and white used until then, including scenes in broad daylight, interleaving performances with the sailing races going on simultaneously, it made people look at jazz from an entirely different perspective.

This was half a century ago and it really shows. People hit it off very differently back then, as the amazing crowd scenes attest to. With rock 'n roll just around the corner ready to take the popular music scene by storm, these were merrier, more innocent times. Enjoy.


Naftali2 said...

You can't help but compare this old film to the performance by Miles Davis at the Isle of Wight, since they were posted by our jazz host around the same time.

There were debates during the sixties about the nature and structure of jazz, and we certainly don't want to rehash those. But during these debates I believe everyone agreed that jazz expressed something very deep and profound about the human spirit and that the music should come from that spirit, that the musician's instrument is only the exit point of sounds beginning from the dark unknown of what's inside of everyone.

Now comes the paradox. Because in the fifties the musicians themselves had deathly illnesses, whether it was addictions, or that they became twisted from constant exposure to the overt and cruel racism of the world around them. Or they were bent by the Depression and World War II. And yet what they produced on this summer's day was whole and beautiful. There was a genuine connection to the other musicians and there was meaning in what they played.

The Miles Davis band consisted of the earliest of the Baby Boomers, and if you're a Baby Boomer (and I am a Baby Boomer), you know that despite the fact that we never went through the Great Depression, so many of us feel completely depressed, that because we never had to fight for what is important and true, we feel very little is important or true, that life is random and meaningless. And we tend to be suckers for appearances, which is another way, I suppose, of saying we can be awfully shallow.

And if that Miles Davis Band is expressing any truth, that may indeed be the truth they are expressing.

This isn't an insult. I would compare this band to, for instance, The Sun Also Rises, which simply spoke of the human emptiness within the world before World War II, the emptiness that allowed fascism to easily spread. It is a truth within a moment of history. The Miles Davis Band is also, I believe , expressing a truth within history.

And yet the groups at Newport 1958, who, if anyone would have the right and expectation of expressing that sense of hopelessness, imminent loss, and emptiness expressed by Miles, it would be these Depression raised folk. But instead, they completely transcend time and place and give us the sense that harmony and beauty are indeed possible.

And that is the truth expressed on Jazz on a Summer's Day.

delta_mike said...

Wow, that was some very thorough commenting.

I am going to comment only on this movie and not on the Miles Davis Band appearance at the Isle of Wight, as I will dedicate a post on that.

By the 1950s, the US was out of the Great Depression and WWII, which in many ways wiped out the former's disastrous effects. This movie is proof enough of this.

You see an affluent society having a ball. Okay, I'll give you that Newport, RI is not exactly the best place to do sociological research, but the baby boom was at its most potent back then and barring the beats Gingsberg, Kerouac, Burroughs etc there were no other voices of dissent.

Of course, jazz musicians, especially black ones, had to fight for over a decade in order to be accepted the way we see here, and it was not a road strewn with roses either.

Whether we like it or not, the only period where jazz was widely accepted as entertainment, and this is a paradox, was during the Depression. The big bands of the time, Basie's, Ellington's, Goodman's, the black ones being born during the Harlem Renaissance movement of the Roaring Twenties - another great example where you have artistic advancement following a calamity as was WWI - provided the masses with a way to forget their sorrows. And make no mistake, the music produced in the twenties was every bit as groundbreaking as bop musically. Of course, it ended in Glenn Miller.

The boppers, the next generation of musicians said "no, thank you, we've had enough of that, now we're gonna show you what we are able to do musically" exactly in the same way their big band counterparts did in the twenties.

Thus, jazz lost its public appeal as these guys turned their backs on the audience literally and musically, trying to elevate the music to a level of seriousness never achieved before. But, as we well know, you can't get something for nothing and the price to pay was dear.

What we're witnessing on this film is really not jazz at its most popular, jazz as mainstream entertainment was as good as dead even back then, we're witnessing the calm before the storm that was the sixties on all fronts in the face of Gibson totin' Chuck Berry.

Naftali2 said...

Okay, let's see. I'm not going to disagree that this was the calm before the storm. But I will take issue with several details.

We've spoken about Chuck Berry before, that he held on to the blues the jazz musicians relinquished. As soon as jazz musicians walked away from the blues, Chuck Berry, Bill Haley jumped right in and took over popular music. The jazz musicians didn't know what hit them, and they certainly didn't fight back, with the exceptions of Jimmy Smith and Cannonball Adderley and others. But Miles Davis didn't fight back, nor did John Coltrane--and for whatever reason, they had the power to define the music. So, they pretty much defined it out of existence.

The boppers, for all of their speed, were popular, as small clubs grew to replace the enormous dance clubs like Roseland. The boppers thoroughly embraced the blues, but they found that the blues sound even better when played over the harmonized major or harmonized minor scales. That's why it's so easy to play over what looks like complex chords--the chords hold the blues very well. And this is a point when jazz became a more intimate music, as opposed to the big band days--which were fun, but not exactly intimate.

And this brings us to your paragraph about the thirties Depression--how jazz made people forget. I don't think this is at all accurate. I think it gave people hope, which is more powerful, the hopeful truth, than some kind of narcotic denial of reality. One way of looking at the Depression is the collapse of institutions, but I think it is really the transition from an agrarian society into a completely industrial society--new technology, new modes of finance, new modes of economic regulation, and most important, new modes of an individual psyche. There was also emerging science regarding the most fundamental of perceptions--that of space and time. In this way jazz was on the cutting edge of this massive revolution that we are still feeling today. All of this emerged in the twenties, and it's power broke the old institutions and thoughts--during the twenties, the full effect(that is, the first tidal wave) not hitting the world until the thirties. More tidal waves followed.

Some musicians play the world as it is, like Miles, and some play the hope of the future, like Anita O' Day or Sonny Stitt or Gerry Mulligan. But especially Anita O'Day.

delta_mike said...

Maybe you misunderstood my Depression analysis. My point is that jazz played during these years was a watered out version of the groundbreaking music produced in the
twenties. Of course I agree with you that it was a transitional period and that the US changed into a full industrial society, and of course a massively industrial society needs music for the masses. Enter big band jazz.

Where I don't agree is that cats like Miles or Coltrane had the power to fight back, or to put it in another way, I think they were unconcerned with fighting back.

Let's look in retrospect the contributions to this music of Cannonball Adderley and Jimmy Smith and by this I most certainly mean no disrespect to these giants, but to my mind they come nowhere near Miles and Coltrane.

You can call these two avant garde if you will, what is certain is that they were two restless artists, always experimenting, always on the cutting edge of their thing and yes, they played the world as it was, I don't see something wrong with that.

Re Anita O'Day, you can't say she didn't give her fights either, as a young singer in the Gene Kruppa band in the forties she insisted on wearing the band uniform instead of the customary gown, insisting that she was one of the boys. What a character!

As you might have noticed, I posted the Davis Isle of Wight here, so we can take any Miles commenting there.

Naftali2 said...

I think you've agreed with me.

Miles and Coltrane were unconcerned with fighting back. They didn't realize that their very art form was headed the way of the dinosaurs. They didn't realize that even though rock musicians were, by their measure, unskilled, that the rock version of the blues was off the mark, (see Albert King and BB King for the bullseye--as well as Albert Collins, Son Seals, you get the point--Hubert Sumlin, Howlin' Wolf, you get the point), it was at least the blues. And for whatever reason, the blues have meaning, much more than the Dorian or Locrian scales. It ain't even close.

Now, regarding Anita O'Day, I said that despite her very real struggles, she found a beauty and wholeness within her and she expressed this. She transcended the circumstances of her times, a good thing.

The avant garde was not transcendent. They very much captured the feel and the inner software, so to speak, with which the world seems to operate today. Call it a good diagnosis. And there's nothing wrong with that either. You've got to know what to fix if you're interested in fixing.

chazz said...

Geez you guys were kind of into your heads and depressed before Sept 2008!!!!Let's me just say that this is the "Citizen Kane" of Jazz Concert Doc's known among film afficnados as one of the most influential documentaies ever made as well as a snap shot of the peak of bop era straddling the pre war ande commming about at a time when Mingus did his "Newport Rebels" LP as a counterpoint and hard Bop was staring to hit it's Apex with the Jazz Messengers and all the stars that came forth and "cool" jazz was coming along in the west and with Miles.I put this with "Straight No Chaser" as best individual bio-doc and "Round Midnight" with Dex doing a composite of Bud and Prez with an incrdible performance by Dex in lead as the best art depiction of jazz life.Truly a masterpiece of film,capturingh a time and performances.Now you go to Montreux or Monreal and you get away from the jazz and blues roots to see pop bands take the main stage and that is sad.

d3lta said...

Chazz you are right, we were depressed back then, lol. As I said on my post, rock 'n roll was around the corner ready to take the popular music scene by storm and, alas, the direction for jazz after these days was south.